Whose voice matters?

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This series of posts explores the dangerous effects of poverty porn. In this post, we look at the importance of who’s telling the story.

The most important aspect that is often overlooked in the debate over how charity beneficiaries are portrayed is how the beneficiaries themselves feel about it. Acknowledging this fact, Save the Children, a charity that’s been accused of using poverty porn, published a report last year called ‘The People in the Pictures’ which detailed the results of a two-year research project surveying contributors - the people featured in their fundraising campaigns. They surveyed people in the UK, Jordan, Bangladesh, and Niger asking them about their experiences and views on how they’d been presented by the charity. While most contributors were satisfied with their portrayal and understood that the images of suffering were used for fundraising purposes, they also said they would prefer more balanced representations, with stories and photos showing resilience and solutions alongside problems.

One concerning finding was that while consent forms were used in every country, some contributors didn’t appear to have a full understanding of why Save the Children were filming or photographing them. Beneficiaries should always have a say in the way they’re portrayed and it’s alarming that their input sometimes isn’t taken into account. This is likely down to a paternalistic culture plaguing development organisations, fuelled in part by repeated stereotypical portrayals of people in poverty as passive and in need of a ‘saviour’ who somehow knows and can deliver what’s best for them. It’s a mind-set detrimental to development, leading to a disregard of the wider contexts of poverty, the exclusion of beneficiaries, and even the exploitation of individuals.

In Save the Children’s survey, they also found that contributors preferred content where they spoke for themselves. This is still an uncommon practise. There is a huge need to be mindful of who’s telling whose stories and how they’re telling them. Many charity communications are told from a Western perspective and those crafting these communications need to be aware of their biases, intentional or not. Campaigns that use poverty porn are never narrated by beneficiaries themselves, and it adds to their portrayal as passive victims. If beneficiaries were brought on board as image makers more often, they’d have the chance to tell their own stories and have control over how they’re portrayed.

Disregarding the voices of people in poverty all too common in the development industry. In an essay, Claire Melamed of the Overseas Development Institute in London questions why development agencies don’t often collect subjective data from the people they’re trying to help. Many agencies are more likely to ask for the opinions of their donors than their beneficiaries, keeping the data they collect in the communities they work in focused on areas like health and education. Even when data on what people in poverty think and feel is collected, it’s rarely used to drive practice in NGOs. Theo Sowa, CEO of the African Women’s Development Fund and chair of the African Grantmakers Network, said in a talk that “when people portray us as victims, they don’t want to ask about solutions. Because people don’t ask victims for solutions”.

In our final post, we look at what charities should be doing instead of using poverty porn in their campaigns.