Apathy Amplified

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This series of posts explores the dangerous effects of poverty porn. In this post, we question its long-term effectiveness and take a look at how it can be detrimental to sustainable development.

Campaigns that use poverty porn do more harm than good in the long-term as they fail to recognise the deeper-rooted issues of poverty, glossing over the context of situations and the individuals being portrayed. Instead, they create the illusion that if we throw money at the problem it, along with feelings of guilt conjured up by the images, will go away. The fact that poverty is caused by a number of complex variables such as structural issues, complexity of development, and political will is usually disregarded as charities mostly focus their appeals on humanitarian crises or natural disasters which require urgent action and quick solutions. But real, sustainable change – the end goal for charities – takes a long time to accomplish, and audiences need to be made aware that it will take a lot more than the click of a donate button to achieve.

Continuous exposure to images of extreme suffering can and does lead to apathy. People get used to seeing shocking imagery in charity campaigns and in the media, resulting in these campaigns no longer having their intended impact. A survey by Oxfam and YouGov found that 3 in 5 respondents had become desensitised to images of extreme poverty and a quarter also said it makes them turn away. A sort of immunity builds up over time, and images of suffering can be easily dismissed as a distance problem faced by people unlike ‘us’ (more on this in a later blog post).

Without seeing or hearing about the progress made in global development, people also resign themselves to believing things will never change. A study conducted in 2012 by IPPR, the UK’s pre-eminent progressive think tank, confirmed this to be the case among the majority of respondents. It also led to scepticism over the effectiveness of aid and caused a decline in support for maintaining the UK’s aid spending. This mixed with the prolonged guilt and pity people have been made to feel by certain charity campaigns causes compassion fatigue and donors question whether their donations can really make a difference. What happened with all those £2-a-months that were supposedly meant to solve poverty?

But progress has been made in global development. In 1981, 42% of the world’s population lived in absolute poverty according to the World Bank. By 2013, that statistic had shrunk to 10.7% - that’s about 1 billion people no longer living in destitution. The global middle class has also been expanding rapidly in developing countries. This side of the story is rarely given the spotlight in charity campaigns or even in mainstream media; instead extreme poverty remains the focus. Over time this builds up helplessness rather than hope in audiences, causing some to literally turn away from the issues completely.

In the next post, we discuss the dangers of a single narrative when representing the developing world.