Fridays with Kema
There is a fantastic Friday night ritual in Melbourne. It’s the great catharsis spent with a special beverage and some takeaway watching some beautiful Australian Rules Football.
Just as you’re settling in and the team you’ve ferociously backed as an absolute shoe-in in your work’s footy tipping comp has just conceded yet another easy goal, enter poor African child Kema.
The goal rolls through and the advert blares across your flat screen TV. A thin African girl sits on a makeshift bed hunched over, making her seem small and vulnerable. Kema is situated in a hut with mud walls and floors. Of course, what else would Africans live in? Her big bold eyes stare down the barrel of the camera, cutting through your bourgeois footy tipping problems and penetrating deep into your very soul.
The still warm fish and chips in your mouth suddenly don’t taste as good, as the dramatic voice over begins to tell you about Kema. You hear stories of marriage to a man many times her age, of submission to a system she is helpless in instead of going to school as all children should.
But alas, the faceless voice over also provides a solution. How kind and thoughtful. All that is needed is just a few dollars a week and you can give girls like a Kema an education. You can give her a future. Sounds pretty easy right?
There are two common responses from the “poor African child” ad. There’s the guilt response, where you and your drink and takeaway feel shame for your excess, and in an action of complete charity you decide to commit to donate weekly dollars to save Kema’s life. The other response is cynicism, dismissing the ad as emotional pornography by which you will not be seduced. You’re sceptical that your money will do anything and instead continue with your meal and wait impatiently for the footy to come back.
And these two schools of the thought, the guilty turned generous giver and the cynical know-it-all, will inevitably clash on the following Saturday night where the sacrosanct Melbourne ritual deems it necessary to gather at the local public for drink and discussion. The guilty generous givers will carefully sip their shiraz and let their beer drinking cynical rivals know that they, the charitable givers, have inevitably done the right thing by helping those less fortunate. While the cynic will slam down their beer and point to how easily fooled the giver is, adding gullible to their rival’s alliterated label.
The problem with this sub-standard schoolyard-quality argument is that both parties are completely wrong.
There is no question that money helps to eradicate poverty. It is important to understand that the key word here is “help”. You cannot throw money at “poverty” until it just disappears. The same way you can’t throw books at a child and expect them to be educated. These books will of course help with education of the child, but they need a teacher to help them understand, peers to challenge them and engage socially, and a future pathway to aspire to. This is the same with poverty. You may have all the money in the world, but without using it in the right way and with the right support and engagement, poverty will stand there helplessly like the child with many books.
Common charity adverts like those which feature an impoverished foreign child such as “Kema”, reinforces the idea that money alone from the guilty generous giver can solve her problem. It also pushes away the cynic, who only sees the overly emotional music and the dramatic voice and tunes out the marketing attempt in order to dodge any feelings of guilt.
Instead of us feeling guilty for our material privilege in comparison to those less fortunate, we should recognise it as a tool of power, a power and agency that can be used for invaluable good. We have the ability to understand why Kema is in the situation she is in and how it can be changed so that those like her won’t be faced with similar problems. We need communications in adverts to engage the public, to treat us as the intelligent, fluid and capable market that we are.
We can make the change from passive armchair donors or sceptics to being active aides and educators in the global fight against poverty; all while still enjoying a beer with the footy at the end of the day.