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?