What does that make us?

There’s been a great deal of discussion, lately, about this thing called “poverty porn.” It’s not new a new idea. I don’t know who first coined the term, or when. I’ve known about it for at least fifteen years. Aid Thoughts, too, has been ranting about it for some time (along with plenty of others). In fact, in my opinion they give us one of the best articles on why it all matters, along with some early attempts at definition, here. More recently, there’s a new-ish website called Regarding Humanity dedicated, not to poverty porn per se, but to the issues around representation of “the poor”, more broadly (but of course, poverty porn is a consistent—if not central—theme in much of that discussion). Then there was the Kurante-facipulated Google Hangout on poverty porn just a few days ago, featuring some of the more outspoken thought-leaders on the subject in the aid blogosphere/Twitterverse (links to existing recordings and Twitter convos, here). And, of course, the inevitable round of follow-up blog posts since. Maybe this post fits into that category.

Poverty porn is controversial. The concept is controversial, and the term itself is controversial. That’s the whole point. At least to Western, native English speakers, just the word “porn” comes fraught, with loads of emotional and cultural baggage. Poverty porn, the word, is catchy, punchy. It grabs attention, and plays on our assumptions about, and perhaps real encounters with real porn. It conjures mental images of abuse and perversion, captured as pictures or videos for the pleasure of others.

It is important to understand that poverty porn is a metaphor. We need to look past the literal meaning of the English word “pornography”, and understand its metaphorical translation into the aid world. To that end I don’t personally see a great deal of value in further trying to define what poverty porn looks like. Nor do I think that there’s much more to be said about the exploitative nature of poverty porn. There are image standards and codes of conduct in the aid industry, and these days most orgs and people play by the rules to the letter, even if not the spirit.

I don’t think I can recall the last time I saw aid marketing that included images of distended bellies or flies on eyes—at least by a serious, credible aid organization. Happy, plump babies, grinning women entrepreneurs, and newly self-sufficient farmers are all the rage. Even disaster response marketing shifts very quickly to something about “dignity”, “sustainability”, or “empowerment” within a few days of the disaster. Remember, there are places in the world where the “Victoria’s Secret” catalog is considered pornographic. Heck, there are places in the world where images of Bollywood starlets with their belly-buttons and noses, bared for all to see, are considered pornographic. Outside of extreme, and usually famous examples, poverty porn defies us to define well it in a way which makes it possible to identify it simply by looking.

No, in order to understand poverty porn, we need to look beyond traditional (and always fraught, anyway) definitions. I think it helps to take a break from analyzing poverty porn in terms of what it portrays, and instead understand what actual porn actually does to and for those who consume it.

At its core, real pornography creates illusions of relationships. In the real world, in real life, relationships are difficult, messy, negotiated, based on (ideally) some kind of equity. But porn allows its consumers to bypass the difficulty and messiness, skip any negotiation, leave aside any notion of equity or reciprocation, and get straight to having it their way, on their terms, whatever “it” might be. Porn creates a false sense of reality that many find appealing—appealing to the point that many prefer it to reality, and are willing to pay for. Put bluntly, real porn tells a lie—a lie that makes money.

And that, for me is the real point when it comes to using the metaphor of “porn” to say something about relief and development work, about those who are meant to benefit from it, and about aid workers, too. Real porn tells a lie about relationships, a lie many find preferable to reality. Porn works precisely because people want the untruth more than they want the truth, and will pay for it—to the tune of a widely touted $14 billion USD per year (will probably surpass the humanitarian industry soon).

Aid and development marketing, as well as journalistic portrayal of aid and development work, struggles to get at the truth. To a certain extent, fair enough. Aid is a complicated thing, trying to tackle complicated problems. There are many legitimate, and at times contradictory, realities in the world of aid and development, and exponentially more perspectives. Telling the real—if you will, the True—story of aid, in all of its nuance and variation and built-in contradictions, whether for marketing/fundraising or for some other purposes is a truly colossal task. Most organizations and people simply do not have the endurance or the fortitude required to commit to telling the fully, true story of aid.

Yet I find it fascinating that more and more aid marketing is described and justified and framed in terms of somehow enabling a “relationship” between the viewer/consumer, and a real beneficiary in the field. This is the entire shtick of schemes like BOGO and P2P (although they’re not the only offenders). “You can have a relationship, and it doesn’t have to be difficult. You can make life better for this other person on your terms.”

Many have also described real aid—relief and development work, variously described and defined—as relationships, and rightly so. But real relationships are complex, often difficult things. Real people, too, are complex. It is not easy to know someone, to understand their context. It’s not easy to have a relationship with another person based on respect and understanding, a relationship equally grounded in the strengths and weaknesses of both parties. It’s not impossible, but it takes time and effort.

I’ve written before that I think how we think and talk about aid matters. It matters how we portray it to those not part of it, whether donors or constituents or someone else. It is simply not acceptable to say that we’ll message a particular way because “donors want” the message a particular way. It is absolutely unacceptable to say that this or that kind of marketing is good because it makes lots of money. Of course everyone in the aid industry understands very well that the aid industry runs on money, and that that money has to come from somewhere, but making money is not the endgame. There are other, equally or more important considerations (as Ian Thorpe points out exceptionally well).

Yes, I know. “Poverty porn” is controversial. It’s repulsive to be compared to someone who would violate beneficiaries for money. But if we are presenting a story of what we do, of how others benefit, or of who those others are, that does not convey reality—even failure to convey reality by omission—then we are essentially presenting an untruth. We are presenting an illusion. We are presenting an illusion that others prefer to the difficult, complex reality of what becomes of what we do; an illusion that that others pay to get more of. And, if knowing all of this we continue to market that same illusion, rather than committing to the difficult, complicated, sometimes downright unpleasant truth, precisely because people will pay for it…

What does that make us?

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  1. Angela

     /  June 24, 2013

    Thought-provoking, as usual.🙂
    In the many times I have been in Ireland lately, I am always SHOCKED, because both Concern and Save still run ads on TV with children with flies, distended bellies, sappy music, person talking ’emotively’…
    Sadly, it still does happen…

  2. Great post. It’s a real relief to hear someone else with the same concerns. Please have a look at my contribution regarding a particular instance: http://www.improvinggloballearning.co.uk/christianaidadvert.html
    Angela, I don’t think the problem is necessarily with portrayals of flies and distended bellies – there is at least some truth in those pictures. The problems are with deliberately fictionalised portrayals.

  3. Hmmm, well I think you hit the nail on the head when you talk about the importance of getting at the truth. But this thought takes me in an entirely different direction than the one in which you seem to be heading. It seems to me that aid organizations are so restricted in the kinds of images that they can use that they can no longer tell the truth effectively. Think of the iconic image of the Vietnam war – the full-frontal, naked girl fleeing her village after it suffered a napalm attack. Now imagine this image was captured not by a news organization but by a modern-day NGO. You can be certain some holier-than-thou, anti-poverty porn type would object to the publication of the image and it would never see the light of day. Hence, an important insight into what the war meant for children in the thick of the fighting would be lost.

    • Thanks for your comment, James.

      In my personal opinion, far too much of poverty porn debate focuses on images–particular, single images, largely divorced from context. We spend far too much time debating whether or not if there’s something inherently poverty porn-ish in the image of a Vietnamese girl fleeing a napalm attack, a dying baby with a vulture waiting nearby, or whichever other image is under consideration. And I think the point to remember is that while pictures may not lie (that napalm attack really did happen), pictures are frequently used to tell lies. Real porn images, too, are images of things that really did happen in real life, and yet they tell a lie.

      For me it comes back to the reality that “good marketing” and “good aid marketing” are just not the same thing. We’re not the for-profit sector, whose bottom line, at the end of the day, is always profit. Nor are we news media organizations. We are something else–the aid industry–and we need to come to terms with what that means when it comes to how we tell our story externally.

  4. Great post! I am a marketing/comms professional working in the non-profit sector, so found this to be a really interesting topic. There has definitely been a shift in how people are being portrayed in comms, but it is also worth remembering that it depends on what kind of outcome you want as a result of your comms campaign and what kind of programs you are talking about. If you are after fast donations during a disaster it is proven to be more effective to show it how it is. However if you are after donations for long-running projects, then it is more effective to show positive case studies of people who have been empowered. A lot of people are very skeptic about how aid money is spent and they get fed up of seeing ‘negative’ pictures all the time, as it looks like no matter how much money people are donating, and no matter how many years NGOs are working in a country, things still haven’t changed. So this makes people reluctant to give an more money. Different NGOs have different targets: some need to get donations, some need to report progress to donors and some need to document what is going on the ground. So it really depends on what an NGOs overall aim is at the end of the day.

    • Would we want outcomes other than people being portrayed in a dignified fashion, and truth about aid programs being told? At the level of principle, I would see zero difference between relief marketing and development marketing. (But then I think that most people make an artificial separation between relief and development in general anyway.)

      I think the more fundamental point is how one sees the difference between the for-profit/corporate world and the aid/not-for-profit world. Here’s part of where I stand on that. But at any rate, that perspective ultimately colors ones’ tolerance for lack of rigorous honesty and dignity of the portrayed in aid marketing. In the most basic of terms, if you see it all as just business, but without a profit margin, then the point is to make as much money off of aid marketing as possible, regardless of how the message/images must be massaged (all for a noble cause, of course).

      • I would have thought that we want an outcome where people during humanitarian crises are being cared for very quickly. That happens by getting enough donations in as quickly as possible to offer that help. If you can’t get in the funding quickly, then they are the ones who suffer, dignified or not.

        There is actually quite a difference between relief and development marketing. Development marketing is often just done for transparency, advocacy or to show progress to donors. Relief marketing is all about getting funds in very quickly to help people at need.
        I visited some people affected by land grabbing in Cambodia recently and when I interviewed them some of the people got really upset and cried. I wanted to stop the filming, but they insisted that we continue and said that we should please publish their images and our interviews with them so that justice can be done.

  5. Great post! I am a marketing/comms professional working in the non-profit sector, so found this to be a really interesting topic. There has definitely been a shift in how people are being portrayed in comms. There is actually quite a difference between relief and development marketing. Only you must surf the web and discover everywhere.

  1. What does that make us? | Global Health Hub: news and blogosphere aggregator
  2. Politics And Poverty, Sign up to receive Poverty matters | The Guardian
  3. Beyond Charity Ads: Eat, Sleep, Donate, then Forget? – Assignment 1e | metapologetic

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