Hardcore Poverty Porn, brought to you by MSF

Aid Watch, after recently discussing the do’s and don’ts of intelligent charity advertising, have unearthed this new ad from Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). Take a moment and watch it:

Have you recovered yet? No? Ok, how about now?

In pure attention-grabbing terms, it is an extremely effective production. The image of the smouldering building is, in isolation, a beautiful, striking thing. We are further pulled in by the sound of a child crying – a noise we’re biologically attuned to. The text eases in and out of the picture patiently, giving us time to absorb everything.

A brilliantly assembled ad, but just how headless is it? Well aside from the audio of a child crying, the (looped) occasional sound of gunfire and the text assuring us that his family has been raped and murdered, we know absolutely nothing about the setting. Where is it? Africa, presumably, but where? What country? What conflict? When? This ad follows the Nicholas Kristoff’s advice that, when it comes to advocacy, less is more. It doesn’t help that we don’t know how much of the video is pure stagecraft. It’s highly likely that the video and the audio are taken from different sources. Given how little information is passed on, can we even take it as given that the audio is

We’ve talked several times about why poverty porn might not be a great idea. I think this is extreme poverty porn – it follows the worst possible practices in advocacy:

  • Portraying Africa as being a war-torn hell-hole (check)
  • Exploiting suffering children to win attention (check)
  • Making it clear that, without your help, these people are all doomed (check).

But let me know what you think of the ad.

I’ll leave you with an awesome video production of Binyavanga Wainaina’s “How to write about Africa”, as read by actor Djimon Hounsou (which is somewhat ironic, as Hounsou’s most recent work involving Africa was his part in Blood Diamond).

“Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages, and even beyond…”

T.I.A.

T.I.A.

A friend sent Matt and me an e-mail dripping with frustration this morning:

“Can you guys do a blog on the rise of ultra-twee novels dropping casual references to far-flung places in the title written by white people about saintly black people surrounded by evil?”

He linked this, and he is not alone in his frustration with the portrayal of Africa in the media. I’m sure I’m not the only person who hated the Ladies No. 1 Detective Agency for its twee and patronizing depiction of Mma Ramotswe, the jovial, good hearted and one-dimensional hero. Matt has done a great job of picking up and shaming examples of poverty porn and African Exotica recently; and he’s not alone: Wronging Rights had a great post a while back tagged as ‘Africa: Land of Rape and Lions’, which pretty much sums up the apparent perception of Africa in the press.

Then, yesterday, I came across this through a comment on Laura Freschi’s post on (b)advocacy: a satirical style-guide for writing about Africa from Granta. It’s very funny and worth reading, but it really set me thinking: I’d recently read a book that seemed to meet a lot of the criteria in the article, but couldn’t remember what it was. I certainly haven’t read a terrible book about Africa recently.

Then it hit me. The book I was thinking of was Sleepwalking Land, by Mia Couto. Not only is it actually a pretty good book, but Mia Couto is African, born in Mozambique. His more recent books are even better: The Last Flight of the Flamingo and A River Called Time both explore history, colonialism, aid and corruption into narratives that stand on their own.

Has anyone else read these? They’re not just African Exotica, though they certainly do make play of “corrupt politicians, inept polygamous travel-guides, and prostitutes you have slept with”. Just like Things Fall Apart is a great book about the impact of colonization on religious and social forms in Nigeria, not one defined by “naked warriors … diviners and seers, ancient wise men living in hermitic splendour”.

As ever, the truth behind our outrage is a little more complex. It’s not the clichés per se that are offensive, but their use in a novel, article or film that offers us nothing beyond them. The Famished Road might make use of what have become clichés about African mythology, but it tells us something about modern Nigeria. The Shadow of the Sun gives us a great deal of romanticized tripe, but still has moments of real understanding that sometimes elevates it above that.

For my money, though, the two best books set in Africa I’ve read are Aké: The Years of Childhood and You Must Set Forth at Dawn, both by Wole Soyinka. My sister, on the other hand, swears by Nervous Conditions. Any other recommendations for books that rise above the clichés are gratefully received.

Of mice and men

Lunch, anyone?

Lunch, anyone?

There’s a very brief article in the Washington post on the Malawian delicacy mice-on-a-stick. I lived there for two years and *somehow* failed to sample it.

What bothers me about the piece is the last sentence:

Malawi, with a population of 12 million, is among the poorest countries in the world, with rampant disease and hunger, aggravated by periodic droughts and crop failure.

This sentence is copied onto the end of every single photo description in the article. It reflects the media’s preferred African stereotype. Yes, Malawi is poor, disease-ridden, and often hungry, but it is really defined by these things? If we’re going to start bringing more dignity to development, we’ll need to start with our newspapers.

America, with a population of 300 million, is one of the fattest countries of the world, with a frighteningly awful perception of poor countries, aggravated by a befuddled, profit-driven media.

Dumbing down advocacy for the greater good

My heroes

Three is a crowd

In Nicholas Kristof’s op-ed in the NYTimes last week he considered factors that may have contributed to lack of international action on humanitarian issues. He uses Peter Singer’s drowning child argument to set up this contradiction: surely members of the G8 would be willing to jump into a pond to save the child – why aren’t they willing to save those larger, more distant groups of people? Krisfof gives some examples from (what I guess must be) the psych literature:

A number of studies have found that we are much more willing to donate to one needy person than to several. In one experiment, researchers solicited donations for a $300,000 fund that in one version would save the life of one child, and in another the lives of eight children. People contributed more when the fund would save only one life. For example, in one study, people donate generously to Rokia, a 7-year-old malnourished African girl. But when Rokia’s plight was explained as part of a larger context of hunger in Africa, people were much less willing to help.

Oh dear.

Professor Singer notes that in one experiment, students filled out a market research study while a young woman went behind a curtain and then appeared to climb on a chair to get something — and fell down. She then moaned and cried out that her ankle was injured. When the person filling out the form was alone, he or she helped 70 percent of the time.

But when another person was in the room, also filling out the survey and not responding, then only 7 percent tried to help. In the case of fighting poverty, there are billions of other bystanders to erode a personal sense of responsibility. Moreover, humanitarian appeals emphasize the scale of the challenges — 25,000 children will die today! — in ways that are as likely to numb us as to galvanize us.

Kristof doesn’t exactly recommend a full solution – but I find his train of thought a little troubling. Explaining the context of hunger makes people less likely to donate? Even if these experimental results aggregate up – is this a wise trade-off? Surely dumbing down the debate to better capture the public’s attention (and purse strings) carries with it the opportunity cost of poorly-targeted advocacy – recall as Mia Farrow’s short-lived hunger strike, during which she urged world leaders to support both the indictment of al-Bashir and the return of aid workers (two outcomes that weren’t exactly complementary). The headless heart reigns when we don’t give people a complete information set – even if that means we make a few people yawn.

I’ve always admired Kristof’s dedication to humanitarian issues, if not always with his conclusions. What would be the ideal advocacy in his opinion, given the above constraints? Michael Bear at the Humanitarian Relief blog has a solution: the return of Sally Struthers

More on the poverty safari

The paid tours of Millenium Villages that I mentioned earlier set the (relatively tiny) development blogosphere ablaze. This isn’t totally surprising: it’s a difficult issue to approach with nuance. I stumbled upon a unreasonably thoughtful article in the Christian Science Monitor. For an even better discussion, see the Scarlett Lion’s interview on township tours in South Africa.

I’m still not terribly convinced that poverty safaris are a great idea – even if we ignore the possible incentive problems, I highly doubt that touring around a village with a large group of azungu would give you an accurate idea of what life is like for the poor. Still, it is relieving to see a more nuanced discussion than we’ve seen so far (see comments).

What is ‘poverty porn’ and why does it matter for development?

Madonna in Malawi - by Publicity handout/Reuters

Madonna in Malawi - by Publicity handout/Reuters

It was a hot day in mid-summer Lilongwe and my passenger and I were driving towards ‘Old Town,’ the commercial district of Malawi’s capital. The main highway took us through a roundabout overlooked by a gargantuan UNICEF sign promoting their birth certificate registration campaign. The sign featured an extreme close-up of a Malawian toddler, a bland and helpless look on his face and a single tear running down his cheek.

“Look at that,” I said, “Isn’t that awful the way they are using that child to get what they want?”

“Maybe,” said my passenger, “but if it helps them achieve their aim, proper birth registration, isn’t it worth it?”

In one of the very few posts I’ve made so far – and likely often in the future – you’ll see me refer to certain projects or images as being examples of poverty porn. The phrase has been thrown around a lot, and is growing more and more popular. What does it mean and why does it matter? My thoughts on the subject are often not complete and coherent, so keep this in mind while reading!

The first time I became aware of the concept was during the flurry of discussion over the fashion photographer Rankin’s exhibition of photos of DRC refugees. A number of blogs discussed whether or not Rankin’s attempt to shoot refugees as he would celebrities was more or less exploitative than the usual Western portrayals of Africa (for a fantastic discussion of the Rankin photos see The Scarlett Lion and Wronging Rights). Neither SL or WR mention the term “poverty porn,” but I seem to recall learning about it around this time.

As I’ve come to believe, poverty porn, also known as development porn or even famine porn, is any type of media, be it written, photographed or filmed, which exploits the poor’s condition in order to generate the necessary sympathy for selling newspapers or increasing charitable donations or support for a given cause. Poverty porn is typically associated with black, poverty-stricken Africans, but can be found elsewhere. The subjects are overwhelming children, with the material usually characterized by images or descriptions of suffering, malnourished or otherwise helpless persons. The stereotype of poverty porn is the African child with a swollen belly, staring blankly into the camera, waiting for salvation. I ask you to take a look at the image above of Madonna and children from a Malawian orphanage. The photo was part of her campaign to adopt a second child (an interesting analysis of the choice of color here).

There is another use of the term, to describe the glamorizing or beautification of poverty. This meaning was part of a major critique of Danny Boyle’s recent hit Slumdog Millionare, which many felt was wrong to create entertainment out of childhood strife and destitution. Given my definition of poverty porn, I don’t believe Slumdog Millionaire qualifies. I’ll explain why shortly.

Why is poverty porn (as I’ve defined it) so dangerous? As my passenger in my car argued: it serves a purpose. For UNICEF or Oxfam, the use of poverty porn is another tool to garner support for an unquestionably good cause: the reduction of  suffering and poverty. We may be exploiting them to achieve this, but surely the end outweighs the means?

Continue reading

Poverty Safari

Keep a safe distance

Keep a safe distance

Through Aid Watch I stumbled upon this excellent article in the Huffington post by Senegalese businesswoman Magatte Wade. She tackles the implicit condescension in ventures like Jeffrey Sach’s Millennium Village project, slyly comparing it to “polite” racism she experienced in France. The main subject of her wrath is a cultural enrichment tour group organised by New Dawn Associates, a group of academics who take foreigners on guided tours around the Millennium Village. Wade fishes out some slightly perturbing recommendations made in the NDA brochure, including:

Please do not give anything to the villagers – no sweets, cookies, empty water bottles, pens or even money.

and

Please do not eat or drink in public. Many people in the Bugesera District are still suffering from malnutrition, and the public consumption of food or drinks is against the culture of the area.

Firstly, as Easterly points out: if this is one of the holy Millenium Villages, why are people still starving? Secondly, do these statements sound familiar? (Please do not feed the animals). The whole venture smacks deeply of a new, dasterdly form of poverty porn: the poverty safari! You too, from the safety of your 4×4, can get to experience the overwhelming poverty of the Rwandan people, only to escape back to your hotel in the evening.

Easterly is unsurprisingly outraged. This sounds like another case of good intentions gone awry. However, is this truly a case of a bunch of Western academics viewing Africans as cardboard cutouts? An actual visit to the NDA website reveals that most of the staff and the entire top management are actually African. Does this lend this venture any more cred? I really don’t know.

The Wade article from which all this sprung is quite a good read and can be found here.

UPDATE: Hmm, the NDA website seems to have inverted since I first looked at it. The top staff are now all white foreigners. The head is Dr. Michael Grosspietsch, who has responded to Bill Easterly here.