Guardians of poverty porn

Oh come on, Guardian. You run a somewhat-reasonable rebuttal by Claire Melamed of the Overseas Development Institute to the recent attacks on increases in UK ODA, but then you feel the need to top it off with this photo:

Let’s see how many boxes this checks:

  • Very cute, if impoverished, Haitian child? Check
  • No shirt? Check
  • Other cute, impoverished children, for context? Check
  • Longing gazes upward (where you look down upon them and consider yourself gracious and merciful donor). Check
  • Hands outstretched to receive help. Check

These are real children, ones that are obviously in need of help, but you do them a disservice when you exploit them in this way to make your arguments.

Op-ed of Darkness

What is Nick Kristof’s most popular word? Hint: it isn’t “kittens” or “happiness”

I’ve learned some new words.

One is “autocannibalism,” coined in French but equally appropriate in English. It describes what happens when a militia here in eastern Congo’s endless war cuts flesh from living victims and forces them to eat it.

Another is “re-rape.” The need for that term arose because doctors were seeing women and girls raped, re-raped and re-raped again, here in the world capital of murder, rape, mutilation.

The struggle of the African farmer, from the safety of your own home

Suit up, it's time to take on world poverty, with your game pad

Suit up, it's time to take on world poverty, with your game pad

Thanks to Kerry Brennan at the Innovations for Poverty Action blog, I’ve discovered my new favourite computer game: Third World Farmer!

From the game’s website:

In the game, the player gets to manage an African farm, and is soon confronted with the often difficult choices that poverty and conflict necessitate. We find this kind of experience efficient at making the issues relevant to people, because players tend to invests their hopes in a game character whose fate depends on him. We aim at making the player “experience” the injustices, rather than being told about them, so as to stimulate a deeper and more personal reflection on the topics.

OK, sounds a little preachy, but let’s give it a go.

  1. Turn one. My name is Eyakobo (which I quickly change to *Matt*). I’m married with two children. I own a hut and my family is in good health. I’ve got some cash ($50) and a field, so let’s get the planting started. I plant mostly maize (corn) with a couple sections of peanuts (high risk) to diversify my crop portfolio.
  2. Turn two. Rats! A drought year! I lose all my crops and am now $12 in debt. My health has suffered.
  3. Turn three. No cash, so we go without proper food for a year.
  4. Turn four. A seedy businessman offers to let me grow opium (?!?!) on my plot, I do so and quickly turn a tidy profit of $152. I buy a shed, some chickens, and another diverse set of crops.
  5. Turn five. Rats! a drought year! I lose all my crops, and now have no money to plant more, just my chickens.
  6. Turn six. Rats! My chickens died! My health is low. No money for food.
  7. Turn seven. “Some paramilitaries hear of your relative success as a farmer and raid your farm, taking everything.”
  8. I die. My wife dies. I send my daughter away to work (and get $1 in return). My son is old enough to run the farm himself. I find him a wife. The wife has, as a clickable option: have a baby (the demographic economists go wild).

I could keep on going about the epic story of my son’s family, but it’s much of the same. Just when things look like they are going well, you get slapped down by the unjust hand of fate (anything from rising input prices, higher costs of living, wars, famines, dumb neighbors, diseases, chicken-specific diseases). These shocks seem a little too convenient (just when I was doing well, something bad happens). It’s a bit like an African Oregon Trail (without the perpetual dread of fording rivers).

I’ve got mixed feelings about this game. On one hand, the game feels like “Poverty Porn: The Game, African Stereotype Edition”. On the other hand, it does at least a minimally decent job of modeling the sort of  decision-making economists like to think about (it’s a good year, do I have a child? What sort of crops do I plant? Should I buy crop insurance?). Give it a whirl and post your experiences on here!

Wow: how about we have the most prominent development economists compete to see who can do the best? Development bloggers, who’s in?

“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.

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.