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Poverty Porn

Poverty Porn, Radi-Aid and Accountability in the NGO World

By Claire Longhouse
Development Communications Officer

How many times have you turned on the television and seen a small African child stare helplessly into the camera, surrounded by a dusty wasteland, with tears in their eyes?

You all know the ads I’m talking about. They have emotionally charged orchestral music in the background and a slow, well-annunciated voice over telling you that “So-and-so needs your help to survive. Donate today or sponsor a child so that so-and-so can live a happy life”.

Advertisements such as these seem harmless. They are engendering a sense of empathy for the hardships faced in low-income countries and calling for donations. It is easy to assume that these advertisements are doing a world of good for the international development sector. However, this is not the case.

"So you're telling me that organisations misrepresent poverty for financial gain?"

Many academics have stressed the notion that utilising images of seemingly helpless, sickly children to gain recurring donations is actually doing more harm than good for the alleviation of poverty. The world of international development has coined a term for such imagery: Poverty Porn. Poverty Porn in its most basic definition is the use of shocking or sympathy-inducing media, utilised in an exploitative manner to gain funds or exposure.

Poverty Porn perpetuates negative stereotypes by representing the poverty narrative in an extremely simplified manner; with the underprivileged retaining no sense of agency or dignity. It also relies heavily on the saviour industrial complex: i.e. “us” in the Western world are the saviours that the international poor need in order to live a fulfilled life. Its aim is to garner short-term benefits, rather than advocate for long-term systematic change and active donor engagement that has the potential to break the poverty cycle.

The issue of Poverty Porn is nuanced and cannot be easily fixed. Simply put, NGOs run on donations and confronting images gets these donations. No organisation is exempt from this reality. If the sector is to step away from Poverty Porn, there needs to be some form of industry accountability. This means praising communications that uphold ethical standards, and calling out those that don’t. 

The Radi-Aid Awards is a perfect example of how this accountability can be translated into practice.

Radi-Aid is an annual event that was established by the Norwegian Students’ and Academics’ International Assistance Fund (SAIH). Its purpose is to feature the best and worst examples of fundraising videos: with the Golden Radiator Award going to the most communicative and ethical video, and the Rusty Radiator Award going to the video that may need an edit.

Anyone that visits the Radi-Aid website can vote on the video they believe deserves each of the awards. The video with the highest amount of votes wins, or loses, and is presented at a ceremony at the end of each year. Radi-Aid is an internationally recognised campaign, and as such acts as a system for NGO accountability. The Radi-Aids are an innovative, collaborative, and effective way to begin the slow progress towards widespread change in NGO communications.

Oaktree is endeavouring to be a part of this shift. We have a practice note on ethical communications in the works, and a communications team that are passionate about the impact that messaging has on the development sector, the general public, and most importantly the fight against extreme poverty.

To learn more about ethical communications, check out Finding Frames UK