Poverty Porn : Perpetuating Stereotypes and Denying Real Activism

 Image Source: Fair Development Consulting

Image Source: Fair Development Consulting

Poverty porn is defined as “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 depicted by the adverts that show images of dying, starving children in an effort to attract viewers to donate to a cause. Or in TV programmes that film the deaths of people ravaged by disease. These campaigns strip human beings of their dignity, exploiting their condition and suffering and objectifying individuals in a bid to attract more viewers and raise more money. Is this a case of the lesser of two evils? Is it fair to exploit the poor in order to “help” them in the long run? Or is it simply another case of the white saviour complex taking advantage of poor communities and impeding actual change and activism from taking place?

Just watching the Band Aid 30 “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” music video from 2014 makes me feel angry.

Watch literally the first 30 seconds. A dying woman, suffering from ebola is carried out of her bed as if she’s not a human being. The next shot?  A stream of mainly white celebrities surrounded by paparazzi step out of their fancy cars to record a song about these poor “others”, the dying Africans who have nothing. It’s a musical, glam embodiment of the “us” and “them” paradigm created by poverty porn. The idea that these “others” are in need of white saviours to come to their aid and solve all their problems is emblematic of the white man’s burden of the colonial civilising mission, where Europeans felt responsible for the “civilisation” of the populations of black “savages” in Africa.

Six years ago, Save the Children released the following ad:

Meanwhile in 2017, Ed Sheeran went to Liberia, filming this video for Comic Relief:

While it is important for people worldwide to understand the realities that millions of children and people face while living in poverty, is there really a need to film a white man standing over two malnourished, homeless black children and watching them sleep? Is there really a need for Save the Children to film kids in their most vulnerable states, presenting the idea that only Europeans can save them, and if you don’t donate, these entire populations would die? Is there really a need for Band Aid to film a dying woman, wearing just a bra and underwear being carried out of her home in such an undignified manner, as if she were just an animal being taken to the abbottoir?  

The problem is that poverty porn makes poverty and health crises seem much more simple than they are. They present a material side to poverty, offering a one click or one call solution to a massively complex problem. Children dying in Africa? Don’t worry, just pick up the phone and all their problems will be solved. Is Ebola destroying the lives of millions? No worries, just give £5 and everyone will be cured.

Poverty porn denies the complex matrix of factors that contribute to poverty, from the country’s economic position, to overpopulation, lack of education, environmental factors and epidemic diseases. Poverty porn stops people from having important discussions about how poverty can actually be defeated, and rejects an activism approach that seeks systematic and governmental transformation. It encourages a culture of aid and charity, rather than a culture of activism and advocacy. It gives people a sense of moral gratification, that they are saviours to the poor and starving people around the world, without encouraging them to become advocates for a cause. It denies the empowerment of local communities, presenting them as incapable of effectuating change, stripping them of any agency and opting to identify them only by their suffering and economic state.

I can’t deny that poverty porn exists for a reason: it works for organisations. They receive the financial support they need in order to run their programmes in the communities that need them the most. But this is at the expense of emphasising negative stereotypes and dehumanising individuals for financial gain. For poverty to be defeated, it’s not simply about a sum of donations from the Susans and Daves sat at home dialling the numbers on TV and donating £5 to a cause. Poverty porn strips away the voice from the local communities that live in poverty. For real sustainable change to happen, we need to give these populations a real voice and present the complex nature of poverty. We need to be creating more advocates not donors. It’s frankly not useful having adverts that perpetuate the white saviour swooping in to save the starving African child.

Article by Chanju Mwanza