Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Development Sector Needs Development: Poverty Porn


          A friend of mine.

This week, I've been seeing a lot of discussion on the web about "poverty porn."  For anyone who's not familiar, this term refers to pictures of impoverished places/people being used in fundraising campaigns, as well as the idea that the worse-off the individuals look in the picture, the greater the financial response.  It seems to be an unfortunate truth that these types of poverty-stricken photos are the types of non-profit publicity that really "sell."  Although it's reassuring to know that when people see someone suffering they generally want to help out (i.e. make a donation), these pictures almost always undermine the mission of the program and create a falsified reality about poverty and how it can be eradicated. 

Many times, and for two reasons that I can think of, this "poverty porn" depicts children.  One, because regardless of economic or social status, children always seems to find a way to soften peoples' hearts.  Two, because children like to play in the dirt.  They like to explore their surroundings and get messy, often at the expense of their clothing.  I think this can be said of almost all children in all countries.  In the case of the developing world, these uninhibited children make for a prime photo opportunity when an organization is trying to catch a people at their worst and really show their "need."  I often wonder what people think when they see these pictures.  That these children are so poor that they must spend their days rolling around in the dust?  I have been living in the U.S. for almost half a year now, and I have seen a number of messy children.  Children covered in mud.  Children covered in paint.  Children covered in ice cream.  I don't think messy children can in anyway be correlated to poverty.  In the example of my dear, young friend above, we see messy children everywhere are capable of cleaning up nicely.  However, the images of these children before they have had their nightly bath still seem to be an integral part of fundraising in our current non-profit sector.

All humor aside, the true danger of these pictures is that they often make very capable people out to be helpless individuals.  They foster a cultural perception of poverty that is synonymous with co-dependence, powerlessness, and hopelessness.  When instead, we need to be fostering independence, facilitating empowerment, and building hope.  These photos are superficial.  We need to be rooted.  And, unfortunately, much of what I've just said about these photos can also be said about the development sector as a whole.  These photos are not just a means to raise money for an eventual end.  These photos define a culture in the development sector that is donor-oriented instead of solution-oriented.  I am willing to go as far as to say they are the antithesis of development.  And the blame for this does not lie solely on the organization or their fundraising team.  Donors are equally, if not more, to blame.  When we are raising or donating money for development work, we shouldn't be thinking about how we can feed a person today, clothe them this week, or send them to school this year.  We should be thinking about how we can create lasting partnerships and sustainable endeavors that will rectify a wrong that currently exists in our world and initiate economic equality for everyone.  Development is not emotional.  It is logical and strategic. 


  1. In the name of children evil is often done. The article is very strong - well done! - and makes the case against exploitation of poverty and disease for NGO enrichment. But that has become the pattern again and again... children with cleft palates, distended bellies, missing limbs... Give now! save a life...and, oh, did I mention my beach house in Aruba? Never mind! Give now!

  2. I couldn't agree more. As a development worker in Mali, I learned early on that it's culturally improper to smile when one's picture is taken. Every picture I have of locals - children and adults - has them posing standing straight up, facing forward, with a dour look on their face. It occurred to me that it would be the easiest thing in the world to collect a hundred pictures of miserable, dirty children with ragged shirts and pass it off as an example of a miserable Africa, when only seconds before and immediately after, those same children were just playing around as happy as any back home in America.