October 13, 2005

Aid cash rivalry leads to poster

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 said.

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, poverty-stricken place.


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 used.

"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 that."

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 subjects' dignity.

"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 best practice.

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 elsewhere.

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 acceptable."

(For more news about emergency relief visit Reuters AlertNet: http://www.alertnet.org; [email protected]; +44 207 542 9484)