Behind the image: Poverty and 'development pornography'
2005-04-21, Issue 203
In a world where graphic pictures of starving children are used by development agencies to raise funds from the public in the rich world, ROTIMI SANKORE critiques the phenomenon of ‘development pornograpy’ and argues that it has contributed towards deeper prejudice. New ways must be found to reach the public and more clearly explain the real reasons behind poverty in Africa, he states.
For decades, development and aid charities in the western world have believed the best way to raise funds from the public for their work is to shock people with astonishing pictures of poverty from the 'developing' world. An iconic poster example of these pictures is one of a skeletal looking 2 or 3 year old brown-skinned girl in a dirty torn dress, too weak to chase off dozens of flies settling on her wasted and diseased body and her big round eyes pleading for help. 'A pound means a lot to her'; 'a dollar can mean the difference between life and death'; 'Give something today' are generic riders.
This approach is partly based on the philosophy that 'a picture is worth a thousand words'. Since the development of photography and the mass media, this has been the mantra of any remotely competent photo editor and in modern times campaign and advertising executives.
The Make Poverty History Campaign, Millennium Development Goals and the Commission for Africa have again focused attention on existing poverty in Africa, Asia and Latin America. New targets have been set just as in the 70's and 80's when the target to end world poverty was the year 2000. New targets mean new campaigns and the type of images used to draw attention to the famine in Ethiopia in 1984 and 1985 will need to be updated. Unlike previously however, there are now even more development charities competing for a limited 'market' of givers. The implications are clear. Each image depicting poverty needs to be more graphic than the next to elicit more responses.
As some psychologists have argued, increasing levels of violence on television normalises violence. Subsequent images of violence then need to be more graphic to make an impact. Likewise an addiction to pornography demands increasingly graphic images to provoke even minimum arousal - in this case, a sense of outrage necessary to sustain similar levels of giving. But despite the number of lives saved or enhanced by aid, the most horrendous pictures do not and are incapable of telling the whole story; neither will development charities conclusively solve the problem of poverty that exists worldwide.
Increasingly graphic depictions of poverty projected on a mass scale by an increasing number of organisations over a long period cannot but have an impact on the consciousness of the target audience. That is the desired objective. But there can also be unintended consequences. In this case, the subliminal message unintended or not, is that people in the developing world require indefinite and increasing amounts of help and that without aid charities and donor support, these poor incapable people in Africa or Asia will soon be extinct through disease and starvation. Such simplistic messages foster racist stereotypes, strip entire peoples of their dignity and encourage prejudice.
Some may genuinely think that this is mere exaggeration. But when a leader of the Conservative opposition announces bombastically that under his government, all immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers would be subjected to tests for tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS in order to save the National Health Service millions of pounds, you can tell he thinks he is on to a vote winner. He either sincerely believes most people from those places carry dangerous diseases, or his strategists believe this will tap into the fears and prejudices of millions of voters. Either option is offensive and no amount of denials will avoid the fact that such prejudice is based on negative stereotypes. And where have most of the negative stereotypes come from? Your guess is as good as mine. Periodic appeals for donations using graphic and stereotypical images of poverty reach millions every year. The intentions may be good, but some of the consequences are not. Additionally many Africans and Asians resent negative stereotypes of their continents as anybody would, and find them offensive no matter what cause they are employed for.
Over time, there has been gradual but increasing awareness that pictures can lie even when they are a 'true' likeness of an instant in time. In the former Eastern bloc, images of poverty stricken homeless people in the 'West' were the only picture many had of capitalism. In today's world of digital media and convergence there is a clear understanding by media experts that often-repeated images can and do create a false consciousness of what is real.
While the poverty is real, the subliminal message development 'pornography' conveys is unreal. There has been some development alongside the poverty and the causes of poverty are far more complicated than single pictures can ever convey. In Africa for instance, previous undemocratic rule facilitated or conveniently accepted by many western governments - to fight off the threat of 'communism' - has ensured institutional imbalances in the development of the political and democratic process. As a result former dictators and their cronies have exclusively accumulated fabulous wealth necessary to meet absurd financial conditions set by biased electoral bodies in many countries. Actual electoral expenses that are unregulated run into hundreds of thousands of dollars and in huge countries such as Nigeria (population 130 million) even millions. And then there is the pre and actual ballot rigging using the mass media and state apparatus. Add to this layers of repressive laws - originally introduced by colonial governments to suppress restless natives - that have led to the death, imprisonment, intimidation and exile of tens of thousands of intellectuals, activists, lawyers, journalists, trade unionists, students and scientists and it is clear that most of those managing these economies and societies are not the best qualified to do so.
One dares not even go back to the consequences of 400 years of slavery that directly or indirectly killed and took away over a hundred million Africans and in the process disrupted all social and political development for four centuries, or subsequent colonial repression that in some places lasted over a 100 years. Most of Africa has been independent for only between 10 and 46 years and for most of that period many countries were ruled by left and right wing or simply mad dictators supported by cold war enemies jostling for strategic influence.
With all the slavery, colonialism, mass murder, repression, looting, corruption, trade imbalances, an doutrageous interests on dubious loans that have gone on for 500 years it is no wonder the continent is bruised and battered. No continent subjected to the same conditions would have fared better.
No pictures can explain this. What development 'pornography' shows is the result, not the cause of five centuries of aggressive exploitation of a continent. The relatively smoother development in parts of Asia exists because no industrial scale slavery and destruction of society was imposed there for four centuries. Unlike in Africa, the foundation of most Asian civilisation and culture remained largely intact. Colonialism suspended the natural trajectory of development in Asia that then continued once its yoke was lifted. Were it not for the immortality of the pyramids and scattered records of past African civilisations, the entire continent might have well been declared a historical wasteland.
Without clear explanations of why poverty persists in the developing world, the western public will tire of giving and sooner or later there will be a backlash; some argue that such fatigue has already begun to set in. For now negative stereotypes may already have been so ingrained that the level of ignorant prejudice that facilitated the transatlantic slave trade, the holocaust against European Jews, Apartheid and genocides from the Balkans and Cambodia to Rwanda may have already taken root.
This is no exaggeration. The first step towards institutionalised prejudice, exploitation and violence has always been a false mass belief that other peoples or sections of society are unequal, sub-human, vermin, dangerous, treacherous or whatever is propagated until it becomes an 'accepted truth'. The most universal example of consequences of such false beliefs is the exploitation of and violence perpetuated against women in all societies. Development 'pornography' has unwittingly contributed towards prejudice and must find new ways to reach the public before its good intentions irreversibly facilitate bad ones. Most importantly, what the developing world needs is a reversal of the institutional imbalances that have facilitated repression, exploitation, incompetence and corruption and a pledge from western interests to allow their people to freely define their future.
© Rotimi Sankore. Sankore is a journalist and rights campaigner, who has written widely on history, politics, culture and rights issues in Africa. This article was originally published in the April newsletter and the website of Bond (British Overseas NGOs for Development) which has 280 member organisations and is the United Kingdom's broadest network of Charities/NGO’s and voluntary organisations working in international development.
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