Quick, answer this. When you hear the words Ethiopia, what is the first image that comes to your mind?
Starving children? Abject poverty? People living in mud huts, saying “Oooga ooga?”
How about this?
What if I were to ask you to holiday in Ethiopia? You would probably imagine a wild desert for miles around, where nothing grows? Would you think of this?
A special thank you to our charities
There are many criticisms of charities. They spend too much money on administration, try aggressive money collecting methods, junk mail people, use a very small part of the contributions to actually help people etc. But today, I would like to talk about something else. The damage charities have done to the third world people, via their constant negative advertising.
It is impossible to switch on the TV or open a newspaper or magazine without seeing the image of a starving African or Asian kid, and the message, “Just two pounds will save this kid.” African countries get a real raw deal. The media and the charities show a constant stream of negative images, that give people the impression that the whole of Africa is a dessert area where people starve daily.
Take Ethiopia again. This blog was inspired by a letter I read in the FT, by Tewodros Ashenafi, CEO of Southwest Energy (HK). He was comparing the Ethiopian famine with the London riots of 2011.
“….in 1984, a group of well-wishing rock stars and the international media highlighted a famine in northern Ethiopia through LiveAid. Indeed there was a famine and the media coverage was useful for raising awareness and gathering resources in order to save lives. However, the unintended consequences were of searing images in people’s minds that all of Ethiopia was a miserable desert. Of course, just as all of London wasn’t burning, only a fraction of Ethiopia was under famine at that time; and in fact Ethiopia is an incredibly lush and beautiful country. Nonetheless, this negative image of Ethiopia as a result of the 1984 famine media coverage has done incredible harm over the years in terms of discouraging investment, tourism and other benefits, a negative image that is just now beginning to recover.
But this recent London media coverage of the riots should remind us all of the dangers of cognitive bias, in which people view the world through their own lens of experience, and that experience is usually provided by the global media. And often that lens presents an entirely false picture of the whole.”
And hasn’t Ethiopians tourism industry suffered. Most people don’t even know Ethiopia even has a tourism industry.
Africans rapping about the London riots
Picture this. What if a few African rappers got together, and started singing about the victims of the London riots? And continued doing so for the next 20 years?And got world wide media attention for it? London’s tourism industry would go down the drain quicker than you could say “Live Aid.”
But such a thing would never happen, and the media would never help promote it either. Such is the hypocrisy of the media.
Charities are supposed to know better
Again, Cracked, a humour website, says it best. Talking about Hollywoods poor portrayal of Africa, it mentions Independence day the movie, which shows the Africans fighting aliens with spears.
That’s because for Hollywood, the entire continent hasn’t advanced much since Jesus was still around. They don’t have any modern buildings yet, but they’ve figured out how to attach a rocket launcher to the side of a truck. This is only natural, since half the continent’s population consists of corrupt soldiers.
How is this related to charities? Well don’t they show the same thing? Starving people, children dying, extreme poverty. The same image Hollywood portrays. Except charities are supposed to know better. They claim to be helping people, and yet show the same negative and insulting stereotypes of the people they claim to help.
Advertising and subconscious messages
It is a well known psychological phenomena: Tell a child he is stupid daily, and soon he will start believing it. He will soon acting out in the way that will make him look foolish.
And why just children, this would work on most adults as well. This is how advertising works. You constantly hear that Acme brand coffee is better than Fubar brand. So when you go to the store, which one do you buy? Of course, you will convince yourself that Acme is a better brand, and that its coffee is more rich. In reality, the constant marketing messages have been embedded into your subconscious, and it makes the decision for you, which your conscious mind then tries to rationalise.
Advertising does work. Why is Coca Cola the world’s most famous brand? Because they have the best product? Not since cocaine was banned from the formula in the 19th century. No, constantly showing ads does work. It puts images into peoples subconscious. The subconscious is bigger than the conscious mind, and we often make decisions from it. All automatic decisions, like what to do when a cat steps in front of your car, are made by the subconscious. But the subconscious is not very smart, and often falls prey to old fashioned biased thinking, based on racial and other stereotypes.
Now imagine being bombarded with the images of starving Africans and Indians. Constantly, the image is being put in Westerners heads that the 3rd world countries are full of good for nothing bums who would starve to death if they weren’t given £2 a month by kindly westerners.
Most of these ads for money by charities are like pornography. Like lazy advertisers, who put an image of a semi naked woman when they don’t know how to sell their product, charities put images of starving babies. The aim is the same in both cases: Appealing to peoples baser instincts, so they will not make decisions with their logical mind. Who else uses this approach? Cult leaders and sleazy salesmen, of course. Yes sir, charities are in very good company.
There is even a word for this: Poverty porn.
Matt Collin of Aid Thoughts describes poverty porn as “any type of media, be it written, photographed or filmed, which exploits the poor’s condition in order to generate the necessary sympathy for selling newspapers or increasing charitable donations or support for a given cause. The subjects are overwhelmingly children, with the material usually characterized by images or descriptions of suffering, malnourished or otherwise helpless persons.”
Poverty porn is also usually focused on the individual but the individual is not speaking for themselves, they are portrayed as helpless, voiceless and in need of ‘savior.’ It implies that they are incapable of contributing to their own development. Poverty porn is designed to make you feel good about contributing to the rescue of the individual in need. It does illicit an emotional reaction but in doing so through these methods, it continues the ‘us and them – poor person and ‘savior’ mentality.
How do the victims of the charities feel?
Has anyone wondered how the victims of these constant negative images feel?
In India, there is a huge resistance and anger at this constant negative images. The Indian media takes great pleasure in pointing out the failings of any western charity. It has led to a mentality of “us vs them”, where “they” are out to get “us”.
I thought this was mainly an Indian phenomena, till I saw a BBC interview with a African journalist. They were talking about a charities plans to send old computers to Africa. The African journalist said something like, “We don’t want your old, out of date computers. If they aren’t good enough for you, why would they be good enough for us? How is learning on obsolete technology good for our kids?”
The cynical part of me thinks this: Electronics is expensive to recycle. Far easier to dump it in Africa as a way of “helping” them, and let them deal with the environmental clean up.
Another article says: It’s questionable how much good aid money has done for African countries, and it’s not just because it has ended up in the wrong hands. Mainly it’s because projects are often ill-defined, ill-conceived and ignore any input from the people they aim to “help”. So it’s also unfair to think that the poor in Africa are simply sitting around waiting for handouts.
We know what is better for you
Most charities have this arrogant “We know what’s better for you, so shut up and take it” thinking. The one project that shows this very clearly is the One Laptop per child. I remember reading the founder of that project ranting in media about how the stupid Africans weren’t buying his computers, how politics was interfering with his high and mighty goals.
The Africans shot back. “….several African officials, most notably Marthe Dansokho of Cameroon and Mohammed Diop of Mali, voiced suspicions towards the motives of the OLPC project and claimed that the project was using an overly U.S. mindset that presented solutions not applicable to specifically African problems. Diop specifically attacked the project as an attempt to exploit the governments of poor nations by making them pay for hundreds of millions of machines.”
Another person said “ I think there are a lot of levels in which this kind of pushing at Africans technologies that are inappropriate for them simply to benefit their own need for vanity and for moral reinforcement.”
But we are helping people!
Charities wear the holier than thou shawl, using the “Oh we are saving one person at a time” line. But like 15th century surgeons, they are causing more harm to their patients than helping them.
The whole “Let’s help the poor” thinking is full of hypocrisy, and it attracts outright frauds as well. In the 2004 Tsunami in India, many western companies and organisations rushed to donate stuff. There was a lot of back patting (usually on their own backs) and self congratulating. “Oh we are so great, look how much we gave to the poor.”
A friend of my fathers, who was working with the Tsunami survivors at the time, told him that many of the western companies who were patting themselves on the back had donated things like out of date medicine. One company donated frilly women’s underwear. The people affected by the Tsunami were short of clothes, but the last thing they needed was frilly underwear. And to add insult to injury, many of these companies claimed tax credit on their “donations” as well.
This may seem like an isolated incident, but if you look at the big picture, it makes sense. “They”, the poor people of the 3rd world, need “us” to help them. And they should accept what we give with gratitude, even is it maybe out of date medicine. This is the poison charities have spread in peoples minds.
Charities claim to helping the vulnerable, but it seems to me they are abusing those they claim to help to further their own agendas.
Dignity and Respect for the poor
Complex problems in third world countries cannot be solved by throwing money at them. And they certainly cannot be solved by making 2/3rd of the worlds population objects of pity, as beggars who constantly need hand outs to survive. This is what charities don’t seem to understand.
So what can we do? How about treating the poor with respect, with dignity? By treating them as equals, by letting them solve their own problems? By visiting their countries as tourists, by understanding their culture, helping their economy by spending money there? Is that so hard to do?
I for one plan to boycott any charity that does not treat the people it is claiming to “help” with respect.