Originally an entry to the Guardian Development Journalism Competition.
During the terrible months of the Horn of Africa Crisis of 2011/12, an astonishingly huge amount of money was raised from an impressively generous public in the midst of the darkest economic times since the depression. This crisis was the first of its size since the decimation of Haiti in 2010, for which an equally staggering amount of money was raised, even if the housing bubble hadn’t yet burst at that point. The people, en masse, are willing to give to help those in an emergency. The Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) and other humanitarian agencies rely on this disaster-response-giving knowing that if and when they trigger it, they will be able to get a significant sum with which to respond to whatever it is. It is, as Chief Executive of the DEC, Brendan Gormley put it, “a tried and tested method”.
Perhaps this is why the predicted shortage of food in the volatile Sahel regions – areas just south of the Sahara desert – is being billed as a ‘looming crisis’, an ‘impending disaster’, a situation requiring an ‘SOS’ right now. It is these buzzwords and the associated devices that organisations like the DEC know get people to reach into their pockets: the mournful voiceover; the images of desolation; the big eyed, pot bellied children. Never mind the hand-wringing of commentators deploring this as exploitative ‘poverty porn’. Relief agencies rely on them because, quite simply, they work.
Certain sections of the aid and development chattering classes – activists, bloggers, columnists, occasional feature writers – condemned the Horn of Africa appeal for the ‘poverty porn’ focus of the campaign. The focus should be on prevention, the argument goes, not on responding to crises. How long can we go on trying to fix these situations? What’s more, people, donors, will only get saddened by these images for so long, eventually they’ll start changing channel or muting the ads. When they get jaded do we make the images worse? As with drug abuse, the strength of the dosage could escalate again and again until, what? Taken to its obvious end, there is inevitably just one place it can go.
“Would you use a film of a child dying of starvation to get people to donate?” A panel of experts was asked this question at an event at the London School of Economics in November 2011, with the follow up, “why not? Personally, I think something as powerful as that – actually witnessing the death of a child, the preventable death of a child – would compel me to get involved: I’d have to do something if I saw that.”
Currently, several important third sector voices are calling for more attention to be paid to this future emergency of the Sahel. It is a good response to the implicit wastefulness of previous disaster responses – the situations are difficult, volatile and managed by a multitude of different and conflicting actors; of course actions are implemented less than perfectly. The alternative model of large scale foreign aid touted most visibly by the economist Jeffrey Sachs and his associated ‘celebaid’ advocates such as the often unfairly derided Bono and Bob Geldof is one that is unlikely to draw much support from the general public.
Foreign aid is intimately wrapped up in the toxic world of politics and politicians, a world experiencing a protracted image crisis. The public will give out cash, that much is clear, but they won’t do so to individuals working in a profession regularly ranked as the least trustworthy – even bankers are seen more positively. Politics isn’t popular. Just look at modern Europe. There’s a very rare and uneasy coalition in Britain from which no party looks likely to emerge positively. In France, the new President is far from universally popular with the far-right Front National lurking with worrying increases in popularity. The ever fading edifices of Italian and Spanish glory have had their downfalls writ large on every newspaper and magazine for months. The USA is wrapped up in domestic issues with the Presidential election coming soon. The Obama administration – while widely admired internationally – has suffered threats and defeats in recent forays into the international arena: first, the World Bank Presidential nomination process threw up the first genuine threat to US domination of the position; next, North Korea announced it would go ahead with its nuclear weapons testing despite hopes that the promise of diplomatic reconciliation between Pyongyang and Washington would deter them.
All in all, politics and ‘Big Aid’ seem very unlikely saviours of the humanitarian industry right now. In all probability, the economic failures of the last five years or so have condemned global development to a very difficult period. Not because people have stopped giving, necessarily, but because people have lost faith in the kinds of institutions that are capable of delivering new and improved approaches to humanitarian challenges.
Poverty porn is the result of an approach to such challenges that relies on the occurrence of full-blown disasters – it is reactive rather than proactive. When campaigners, donors and agencies successfully banish this approach they will banish the exploitative, limiting and occasionally offensive images that make it work. Just don’t expect it to happen anytime soon.