You Don’t Know What’s Best: The Overuse of Poverty Porn

The Better World by Design conference, an annual gathering of Brown and RISD students, community members, and designers of all varieties was bound to elicit critical thought on a number of subjects. What I did not expect, however, was to be critiquing the presentations and panelists I saw for their use of “poverty porn.” Poverty porn is a representational issue of larger questions related to NGOs and government’s roles in providing aid.

Poverty porn is the term increasingly used to refer to images utilized to solicit money or goods for charities and foundations attempting to help people in the developing world. These images often depict crying, starving, or generally destitute children, frequently wearing minimal clothing, in the street, or in a hospital setting. Another form of poverty porn promotion is images of people in the developed world smiling when given some new plastic object that is supposed to improve their lives. This resource use depiction is what makes poverty porn problematic; the people receiving goods lack agency in this narrative. Usage of these images portrays the developing world as a victim only salvable by Western intervention and power (or in this case, the reverse).

Fatefully, the first panel I attended was titled, “Designing New Narratives: Moving from Poverty Porn to Agency,” and featured Linda Raftree from Regarding Humanity, Victor Dzidzienyo from Howard University, and Leah Chung who performed on-site research as a RISD Maharam fellow. To varying degrees the panelists bring attention to and attempt to change poverty porn use. However, the three only brushed the surface of the poverty porn problem, and failed to go into greater depth regarding possible solutions. Nevertheless, the panel sparked my attention and informed subsequent conference analysis.

The poverty porn intervention outlook is repeated in many sectors of international aid and in societal understanding of global social issues. Ruyard Kipling first coined the phrase, “white man’s burden” in his 1899 poetic commentary on American imperialism to describe this phenomenon. The “noble enterprise” justification is still present when analyzing both governmental and non-profit development aid. Just as “Africa” and “Uganda,” or “Middle Eastern” and “Arab,” are used interchangeably, poverty porn furthers the facelessness of the native or the namelessness of the brown face.

Media depictions reinforce stereotypical images of poverty. Over and over we are bombarded with images from charities such as Smile Train, Operation Smile, or Water Aid. Big news sources often pick up and repeat such images; even if the discussion focuses on harsh depictions of the developing world, these descriptions are still promoted. Similarly, many charities and organizations boil down serious issues to percentages, ratios, and one-to-one comparisons. Often, intervention becomes an economic question: “$1 invested in water is $4 invested in the community,” or “we can feed 4 million more people without spending one more dollar.”

Resisting this narrative can be difficult. Western nations have the technology, the funds, and the mobilization power to successfully provide aid in the form of life-improvement items, livestock, or electricity and water infrastructure. Sending items that we think people need (see the TIMS video) and therefore solve their problems for them is a lack of belief that they are able to manage their own lives. Effective aid is not about what you personally think people should want or have, but rather what they think they need. Locals are much better equipped to specify the forms in which aid can be utilized most efficiently. In order to use local knowledge it is critical to engage with the communities in question rather than making executive decisions without local consultation.

The resolution for poverty porn is not for NGOs and governments to pull out of the developing world, but to reevaluate and reframe their positions there, particularly in Africa. Solutions to avoid unintentionally falling into using poverty porn images include letting people within the communities tell their own stories, as opposed to relying on outside forces to do so. A Better World by Design advocates for a thoughtful and intentional approach to design. When expanded to international development aid, this means taking a deliberately collaborative role with local communities and populations, listening to those stories. Significant change can be achieved through supporting local design and innovation, not merely exporting ideas from the developed world.

Two speakers at the Better World by Design conference merited attention for their interactions with local communities: Daniel Feldman, an Architecture for Humanity regional ambassador and Alex Eaton, co-founder of Sistema Biobolsa. These two men work intimately with communities and families to develop and build appropriate structures and develop suitable technologies. Daniel Feldman spoke of the critical role of architecture and design in Colombia for developing sustainable and usable structures while sidestepping bureaucratic zoning laws. Alex Eaton brings biodigestors (units that convert manure or other organic waste into usable energy) to small communities that are otherwise plagued by lack of electricity and public health problems. What struck me is the degree to which the men consider their role and influence as outsiders in these small communities. They ask what the role of design should be, what the role of designers should be, and how to make objects that are durable, easy to install and uninstall, adaptable, modular, and inexpensive. Feldman and Eaton work on projects that see people as more than objects, choosing instead to empower them through the utilization of local resources and spaces to enhance their quality of life, rather than depend on the next installment of international aid.

The issue we return to is the nature of the role NGOs should play in crisis or need situations. Should they take culture into account? Do NGOs function primarily as a temporary service or as transitionally helpful entities? International development aid is not black and white but incredibly nuanced. Too often Western powers attempt to deploy one-item-fits-all approaches or to universally implement bureaucratic standards. Instead, they should take the vast variety and diversity of culture and community in impoverished areas as the foundation of their approach, and tailor solutions to fit each problem. A Better World by Design Conference attempts to start this process by addressing social engagement through the framework of design. As ever, the devil is in the details. The sooner this concept is realized in international aid programs, the sooner the aid itself will no longer be needed.