• Vic Hancock Fell

Poverty porn and white saviour complex: why good intentions are not enough


It was a few years ago when I first saw the genius viral video, Africa for Norway. If you haven’t seen it, take a few moments now to watch it…


OK, welcome back… I smiled, laughed and nodded in agreement throughout this video and when it finished the Band Aid 30 video was ‘Up Next’ on YouTube. In contrast, whilst I watched this, I had an awkward grimace on my face, and in parts, watched through my fingers as if I was watching a horror film. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t noticed how awful it was when I’d seen it before. The opening shot of a starved victim of Ebola, being carried out of her house like an animal on the way to the slaughter house, was followed in the next scene by glamorous celebrities getting out of fancy cars, with hundreds of paparazzi vying for a shot at a photo. Straight away the tone is set, it’s ‘them’ and ‘us’ and we are here to save them. Band Aid epitomises this us v.s them message.

Fuse ODG, the Ghanaian musician, turned down Band Aid 30 saying “I was sceptical because of the lyrics and the videos of the previous charity singles, and I worried that this would play into the constant negative portrayal of the continent of Africa in the west”. He wasn’t wrong, the song has one line which reads “no peace and joy this Christmas in West Africa” – *insert eye roll emoji here*.

Poverty porn and white saviour complex

The phrase ‘poverty porn’ was first coined in 1981 as a label for aid campaigns that “expose something in human life that is as delicate and deeply personal as sexuality, that is, suffering … It puts people’s bodies, their misery, their grief and their fear on display with all the details and all the indiscretion that a telescopic lens will allow.” 30 years later and despite many organisations shunning this old fashioned and dehumanising approach to fundraising with fantastic campaigns like War Child Norway’s Batman ad, and Plan International’s ‘What do girls really learn at school?‘ there are still some cringeworthy campaigns that demean and degrade their subjects and paint Westerners as the only ones who can save them.

Even the biggest names in development and aid, who really should know better, are capitalising from poverty porn. Last year’s Rusty Radiator award went to Save the Children Netherlands for their embarrassing video. Up for the award this year are DECwhose video featuring Tom Hardy claims ‘a little from us here will make a massive difference there’ and Comic Relief, whose video sees Ed Sheeran creepily watching two young children sleeping rough in a boat on the beach. Even Comic Relief’s CEO, Liz Warner, admitted the organisation had lost its creative touch and needed to be “edgy again

It’s not enough to have good intentions

It may seem harsh to the celebrities that have put themselves forward as the spokespeople for these worthy causes, their hearts were undoubtedly in the right place. But Ed, Tom, I’m sorry but that really isn’t enough. It’s simply not enough to have good intentions. We all have a responsibility to challenge the narrative of ‘Africans are dying and the we’re the only ones who can save them’. Placing yourself at the centre of the story is classic white saviour.

It’s not that the content of these videos is false, it’s that they show a single narrative of the African continent. The problem is that they are stereotypes and in the long term they create more problems than they solve.

Frustratingly, these kind of appeals are successful in raising money – the DEC’s east Africa appeal raised £60m. But is it enough to raise lots of money, at any cost? I’d argue that it is not. Campaigns like the War Child Batman ad show is that it is possible to play on our emotions without playing on guilt and without representing subjects as pitiful and hopeless. It’s such as great ad.

I work with many smaller charities working in development, the vast majority of them are acutely aware of these problems, often because they know their beneficiaries personally and would hate to represent them in this way. Team Kenya, the charity I co-founded, pride themselves on representing the people we support honestly, and with their total involvement and consent. Anatalia, one of the women we’ve supported for getting on 10 years now, helped us to produce her case study video and had final sign off on how it went out to our audience.

All development organisations, from the smallest to the largest, have a responsibility to change the way the world sees the developing world and people like Anatalia, a Team Kenya beneficiary, but also my friend of 10 years.


5 views

Fair Development Consulting Ltd is a company registered in England and Wales with company number 11398596.

Contact

Privacy Policy

Small International Development Charities Network

Terms and conditions