Minimum Standard for Aid Organisations: Shunning Poverty Porn

There is a dizzying array of charities and NGOs of all types at work in developing countries. Many of them are doing great work, but alas, many are not, and some are doing more harm than good. (If this is news to you, stop reading this, and peruse a few of these resources.)

Happily, people seem to be waking up to the fact that not every charity founded by well-intentioned IDS graduates who just got back from six months volunteering in Ghana is going to save the world. But how do you know which NGO is doing good work?

Unfortunately, distinguishing the pros from the hacks is not an easy or quick task. However, there are a few simple questions I ask myself when looking at an organisation’s website that can go a long way to addressing this issue. I’ll look at each of these questions in a series of posts.

Let me be clear – these are minimum standards, not guarantees that an NGO is doing great work. I do not advocate donating to or volunteering for any organisation without doing some serious background research first. But if an organisation fails to meet even these very low bars, they are almost certainly not worth your money or time.

The first question to ask about an organisation’s website:

Do their photos show poverty porn?

When exploring the website of an NGO I’m not familiar with, the first thing I look at are the photos of the people the organisation is trying to help. Are they portrayed as empowered individuals? Or do they look like victims, passively waiting for help?

Photo displaying poverty porn by the Guardian

The blog Aid Thoughts argues that this photo, from the Guardian, is poverty porn

The latter type of photo has come to be referred to as “poverty porn.” I agree with this definition of poverty porn, from the blog Aid Thoughts:

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. (…) 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.

Responsible NGOs should not use poverty porn for three reasons.

First, poverty porn reinforces stereotypes about poor people – that they are child-like, passively waiting to be rescued. Organisations that work in developing countries should instead combat these stereotypes by portraying the truth: that the people they serve are individuals actively engaged in solving their own problems.

Second, when I see an organisation using poverty porn, I immediately wonder if the organisation itself sees the people it is serving as helpless victims. If it does, it will probably make some of the most rudimentary mistakes of bad aid, such as trying to impose top-down solutions without consulting with the aid recipients on what their needs and priorities are.

Third, and most importantly, poverty porn shows a basic lack of respect for the subjects of the photos. Anyone can be made to look weak, pained, or helpless, as Duncan McNicholl humorously illustrates on his blog by juxtaposing two very different photos of the same person (more examples here):

Poor Edward

“Poor Edward.” Photo by Duncan McNicholl, waterwellness.ca

Rich Edward

“Rich Edward.” Photo by Duncan McNicholl, waterwellness.ca

It’s unfair to the individual to portray them as a victim – it lacks dignity. As Good Intentions are Not Enough puts it, “If you would not allow your family’s image be used in this way, do not donate. Because although this isn’t you, it is someone else’s child, mother, or husband.”

2 thoughts on “Minimum Standard for Aid Organisations: Shunning Poverty Porn

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