The dangers of a single story

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This series of posts explores the dangerous effects of poverty porn. In this post, we look at the consequences of its prominence in charity campaigns and the need for telling a range of stories that are more accurate and more well-rounded.

When charities present a very one-sided view of developing countries, these images of extreme poverty become the only images people associate with the developing world. Third world countries often only receive the media spotlight when there’s been a natural disaster or humanitarian crisis, so it’s easy to see how such narrow representations become representative of all life and experiences in developing nations. In 2002, development charity VSO published their findings from a survey of the British public asking them about their views of the developing world. The report, titled ‘The Live Aid Legacy’, noted that 80% of respondents strongly associated third world countries with images of famine, disaster, and Western aid. The research was conducted 16 years after Live Aid took place, which goes to show the lasting impact of the deficit of wider portrayals of the developing world. In 2012, Oxfam held a poll asking respondents to “name the first things that come to mind when you think of Africa”. 55% of the 1,295 people polled talked about issues related to famine and poverty. A few years ago, a skit on The Daily Show highlighted the persisting stereotypes of Africa.

In her Ted Talk ‘The danger of a single story’, Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talks about the consequences of only being exposed to a single narrative of certain nations or continents. She said ‘It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.’ Continuous use of poverty porn means groups of people have come to be defined by suffering. Stereotypes are created and reinforced, and ignorance and indifference grows. People become surprised or even dismissive when they’re confronted with someone’s story that doesn’t match their expectations. Australian charity Live Below the Line ran a campaign satirising this thinking.

One stereotype that has emerged from poverty porn is the assumption that people in poverty are all helpless victims incapable of helping themselves. Researching the biases of development professionals, the World Bank surveyed their own employees asking them to predict to what extent poorer and richer people in three developing countries would agree with the statement: ‘What happens to me in the future mostly depends on me’. The staff estimated around 20% of poorer people would agree. Their predictions were far off – around 80% of the poor people surveyed agreed their own actions and efforts would determine their outcomes – showing a huge gap in perceptions.

When charities insist on using poverty porn, they may generate sympathy but the same can’t be said for empathy. How many people in first world countries can relate to the challenges faced by those in extreme poverty in third world countries? And why is it okay to show some people at their most vulnerable but not others? What it reinforces is the false notion of an “us” and “them” which, to put it mildly, isn’t an ideal way of addressing any type of inequality.

In the next post, we look at beneficiaries and why their voices are so often disregarded.