‘Development porn’: the explicit material used by NGOs today

Since the dawn of the digital age humanitarian appeals have bombarded our television and computer screens with ‘pornography of poverty’ or ‘development porn’. Used extensively in appeals by NGOs, the explicit imagery shocks audiences and draws attention to the most extreme cases of deprivation. In this blog, I’m going to look at the implications of ‘development porn’, how it can influence western perceptions of Africa and its impact on development.

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A child is treated for severe malnutrition in Somaliland

‘Development porn’, according to Collin (2009), is essentially any type of written, photographed or filmed material which exploits the physical state of the poor to bring in donations or sell media content (newspapers, magazines etc.) based on sympathy. The above picture is from a Save the Children appeal, calling for donations to help the millions currently affected by famine in east Africa. Named as Dahir, from Somaliland, the child is thin and helpless, and he stares into the camera and into the eyes of his audience across the western world. The appeal is directed at the viewer, making those who refuse to donate responsible for the subject’s plight. This is the creation of an ‘ideal victim’ (Hoijer 2004). Hoijer (ibid.) states that a child ‘has no politics’ which hides the deep structural causes of poverty. On the webpage where this image was found, Save the Children inform us about how ‘back-to-back droughts’ have left thousands of children undernourished. What they don’t tell us is that Somalia has been ravaged by civil war and political unrest for a quarter of a century, which itself has left up to half a million dead (UNHCR 2016).  By not giving us the full story, appeals like this mask a complex scenario where political factors have also had a major effect, and makes those affected look like victims of a natural disaster. These images hide the whole truth from the public and portray a negative outlook on Africa. In addition, the lack of media attention on more positive stories from Africa promote a stereotype of nothing but a hopeless continent, reliant on our charitable donations for survival. ‘Development porn’ is used for raising donations, but Sankore (2006) argues that ‘compassion fatigue’ will set in. This is where audiences become insensitive to such explicit images due to high exposure, which will have a negative impact on donations and long-term development.

NGOs however, have responded with appeals that look to shed a more positive light on Africa. ‘Deliberate positivism’ combats compassion fatigue by providing evidence of the benefits that the audience’s donations bring and looks to promote long-term development rather than short term aid.

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Thanks to Oxfam, Brian now has access to safe drinking water

This image is from an Oxfam appeal and tells the story of a South Sudanese man named Brian who is tasked with transporting 3 tonnes of water per day from the Nile to his village. ‘Deliberate positivism’ personalises, rather than dehumanises the subjects of the appeal, and the video shows people working and going about their daily lives happily. It emphasises their agency and shows us how they make a living and contribute to their community. Rather than showing the effects of extreme poverty, it shows us the positive work that has been done thanks to donations. Critics continue to argue however that ‘deliberate positivism’ can be patronising, still portraying the poor as being reliant on aid. This type of imagery still does not tell us of the deep-rooted problems that cause poverty such as conflict and corruption and suggests that we, the audience can solve the poor’s problems (Tudor 2013).

Competing for a limited market of donors, NGOs will continue to do what they think is best to raise donations. With the emergence of social networks and globalisation, humanitarian appeals are seen by more people than ever and have a huge influence on society’s attitudes towards the developing world. I am sure that NGOs such as Oxfam and Save the Children have done much work reducing poverty worldwide but they must be more responsible in the content they put into the public eye and reporting the wider implications for development.


Bibliography

Matt Collin, 2009, What is ‘poverty porn’ and why does it matter for development?, Available at: http://aidthoughts.org/?p=69 [accessed 06/03/2016]

Birgita Hoijer, 2004, The discourse of global compassion: the audience and media reporting of human suffering, Available at: http://mlab.taik.fi/~kavetiso/tsure/Global_Compassion.pdf [accessed 06/03/2016]

UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), 2016, Global forced displacement hits record high, Available at: http://www.unhcr.org/news/latest/2016/6/5763b65a4/global-forced-displacement-hits-record-high.html [accessed 06/03/2016]

Rotimi Sankore, 2014, The pitfalls and consequences of ‘development pornography’, Available at: http://www.globalenvision.org/library/8/766  [accessed 06/03/2016]

Owen Tudor, 2013, Images of Africa: getting better?, Available at: https://progressivedevelopmentforum.wordpress.com/2013/01/06/images-of-africa-getting-better/ [accessed 06/03/2016]

 

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