Aid cash rivalry leads to poster “pornography”
By Ruth Gidley
LONDON (Reuters) – The growth in the number of aid agencies
trying to persuade a reluctant public to part with its cash has
led to a resurgence in shocking poster tactics that critics
call “development pornography.”
Twenty years ago, images of starving black babies in
Ethiopia pleading silently for food helped to raise billions of
dollars in aid.
However, the campaign led to soul-searching among aid
agency staff who believed such images reinforced debasing
stereotypes of Africa and robbed the subjects of their dignity.
Fund-raisers say such pictures are the only way to tug
heartstrings and bring in the cash, especially at a time when
non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are competing for limited
funds from a public some say is suffering “compassion fatigue.”
According to Tafari Wossen, a former public relations
official with the Ethiopian government, there were only seven
NGOs involved in the aid response during a famine in his
country in 1974. “The number of NGOs is now uncountable,” he
Nikki van der Gaag, a freelance writer and editor, said aid
agencies used to think long and hard about using dignified and
appropriate pictures of disaster victims but, as the
competition grew, they forgot the lessons of the past.
“It’s got worse in the last 10 years,” she said.
“You have to think: ‘Would I like my picture, or my child’s
picture, taken like this?”‘
Concerned aid workers say the trouble with wringing
emotions to loosen purse strings is that the Western public
ends up equating Africa with famine, reducing an entire
continent and its 900 million inhabitants to a single,
Critics say Western newspapers have been full of
undignified images of women and children alongside articles and
appeals related to Niger’s 2005 food crisis.
They say such pictures are not quite as bad as images from
Ethiopia in 1984 that showed matchstick-thin wrists of black
babies dwarfed by white hands, but still perpetuate a colonial
idea of incapable Africans waiting for help from white saviors.
“People get some kind of perverse enjoyment out of looking
at other people’s suffering. There is a term for it:
‘development pornography’,” said Lizzie Downes of Comhlamh, an
Irish NGO that supports aid workers and educates the public.
Pete Davis of Oxfam’s education department said the
repetition of certain types of images helped shape assumptions.
“The idea that pervades is that Africa is a broken, dusty
place without food or hope,” he said. “Many children in the
U.K. simply don’t believe there are cars, cities or mobile
phones in Africa.”
Jenny Matthews, who has made a career photographing women
in conflicts and is frequently used by aid agencies, said
sometimes a striking picture of a suffering infant needed to be
“It’s a truth,” she said, pointing to a picture of a baby
in her mother’s arms being fed through a tube. “I’d stand by
Lizzy Noone of Irish agency Concern is part of a team
writing new guidelines for European agencies to help staff
choose pictures that can raise money without taking away the
“The fund-raising department argue that softer images don’t
bring in the money,” she said. “If all the agencies did it at
once, and people were willing to take that little drop of
income for the transition period, the public would get used to
it very quickly.”
The new guidelines are due to be launched in November 2006.
However, many aid workers are reluctant to write hard and fast
rules, instead preferring to promote good examples to ensure
Noone said a Concern appeal for Niger showing a naked,
emaciated child in her mother’s arms was not a good image to
use because it was a stereotype and an Irish child would not be
portrayed naked in the same way.
She said Irish agency Trocaire had avoided stereotypes by
using an appeal showing a family against a backdrop of land
that had turned to desert.
“It’s very illustrative of what’s going on, and farmers in
Ireland could relate,” she said.
Pictures of famine victims are often presented without
context and without the subjects’ names, critics say.
Sometimes one person’s striking image becomes an icon for a
tragedy, which can cause problems for the individual.
Paul Lowe, a photojournalist who has worked in famines
around the world, said a man photographed in India crying over
his dead daughter was then ostracized by his community for
showing weakness, and was forced to move to a different place.
Oxfam’s Davis said pictures from Africa were often selected
using different standards from those that would apply
He said picture editors would usually think at least three
times before publishing photographs of naked children, unless
they were African famine victims.
“But naked famine’s OK, it seems,” Davis said. “Using
pictures of bare-breasted women in a society where the only
other place we see that is salacious tabloids is not
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