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).

2 thoughts on “Hardcore Poverty Porn, brought to you by MSF

  1. Ranil Dissanayake

    August 30, 2009 at 8:20am


  2. […] Yesterday’s blogosphere storm of criticism on the MSF video hit a soft spot in the humanitarian aid crowd. MSF wanted to change the way they’re showing what they’re doing. Some links to where the discussion took place: Osocio, The Road to the Horizon, Duckrabbit, Aidwatch and Aidthoughts. […]

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