peter carroll email@example.com it's a world of wonder
My article for the BYU Political Review!
Original found here.
You and I have seen them on posters and Internet banners, on billboards and bus panels—pictures of people in poverty, starved children and women with threadbare clothes, and downtrodden expressions. These images are designed to pull at our heartstrings, but they are the bad kind of sensational. Bill Easterly, author of The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good, calls this type of marketing “poverty porn.”
In criticizing these donor-attracting portrayals, it is far from my intention to diminish the challenges of a significant percentage of the world’s population. It is also not my intention to downplay the good work of many international organizations. However, many organizations consistently propagate a narrative about people in developing countries that fundamentally misrepresents the holistic reality of the pressing problems of poverty.
Theirs is a crime of wrong emphasis.
The problems that face most people in developing countries may actually be more disastrous than the developing-world-in-crisis images suggest. Still non-governmental organizations often focus on a less relevant, more easily understood message. A prime example of this skewed emphasis is the focus on a starving Africa. The number of people who have experienced famine in Africa pales in comparison to the number of people that are affected by issues that are more lasting, subtle, and endemic. This is not to say that famines are not terrible, terrifying, and real; however, the point remains that as the crisis message is used over and over again, we lose sight of the issues that are more consistently prevalent.
Less sexy, though more serious, problems get overshadowed. For example, respiratory infections and diarrhea are the most deadly killers in low-income countries, yet when is the last time you heard an organization appealing to these problems to get funding? The crisis narrative sells because donors (like you and me) want to hear about problems with quick and easy fixes. We want to think that with a simple, short-term input of resources and time, the world’s problems will be solved. Sensational claims cater to our concerned, but time-pressed selves; yet they often lead to bad projects.
Deeper down in our psyches something darker is being fed by sensational development campaigns. A hero narrative is being told about the West’s relationship with the developing world. Organizations often fuel our desire to play Superman—or at least Lassie. The problem is that it may be doing more harm than good for all involved. So why, as long as work is being done to help people in poverty, does the language and emphases used by organizations really matter? Though subtle, at the core of crisis messages is the idea that people in the developing world are fundamentally different from us. This lie is the seed of dehumanization. For centuries we’ve built an us and them, north and south, civilized and tribal vernacular. These distinctions may subconsciously engender apathy toward the daunting problems of billions of people on earth.
Invisible Children’s recent Kony 2012 campaign—though it has a number of redeeming qualities—is a prime example of the kind of oversimplification and ticking-time-bomb arguments that lead to the emphasis problems discussed here. This is especially apparent in the virtual absence of decision-making Ugandans in the film “Kony 2012” (as well as the generally bad reception the film has received in the region). Instead, the film implicitly bills Ugandans as people without the agency or ability to deal with Kony and without the capacity to handle the aftermath of his departure from Northern Uganda years ago. In reality, Ugandans fought Kony out of Uganda and continue to run programs to help the heavily affected areas formerly controlled and abused by the LRA. Though US assistance may prove helpful, they have been helping themselves in this
area for years.
In combating this emphasis problem we need to tell more accurate stories about people in the developing world. Some organizations have begun these more complex campaigns, which move beyond crisis messages and shock-factor images, and towards facing the facts (e.g. one.org/livingproof). Instead of seeing crying, starved children, I want to see more billboards with children smiling because of donor-funded antidiarrheals. And instead of more oversimplified and sensational campaigns, I’d like to see more organizations depict the complexities of the issues they claim they are solving, even if this story is harder to bear.
This is well worth the watch…
We painted a tree…