Representing ‘development’: Portrayal or Betrayal?

It is a topic which seems to evoke a lot of anger, opinion and debate, yet my opinion of the representation and misrepresentation of the poor is conflicted between the money it raises and the stereotype it perpetuates. The morality of what is often referred to as ‘poverty porn’, the shocking images fed to us by development actors in order to encourage our ‘moral obligation’ as the ‘rich white westerners’ to give up our cash, is hotly debated by all in the development sector. Who does it really help? Does it do more damage than good? How can we stop it? Drawing on the ideas of Nandita Dogra and John Hutnyk as well as looking at different social media campaigns and articles, I aim to unveil the more harmful effects of this so called ‘poverty porn’.

poverty porn 2

Figure 1: A very colonial depiction of a ‘helpless’ child

Figure 1 is the perfect example of how charity campaigns perpetuate the idea of white privilege and strip the people whom it is trying to help of their dignity. Whether intentional or not, the museum like box placed around the child feels like an echo of the human zoos that were oh so popular and normalised during the colonial era. In addition the emphasis on ‘we’, the western saviours, and our role in ending their poverty again reinforces the idea of dependency and infantilism, often used in colonial teaching. By infantilising the subject, we, as the target audience, feel sympathy and a sense of moral injustice which in turn causes us to delve into our pockets and give the ‘infant’ their childhood back.  There are many ways to infantilise someone, adult or child, it all depends on how you portray them. For example, you can show them naked or starving or you can take a picture looking down at them whilst they stare desperately up into your lens (Dogra 2007, p. 166).  All of these ‘tricks of the trade’ help to create a sense of urgency as well as innocence (and money). Whilst years of usage proves that these types of images are effective in raising money they are undignified and somewhat untrue.

Another criticism of this tactic is the way it over simplifies the problem and the solution causing charity and not real change. As Hutnyk (2004, p.81) argues, charity is an “alibi for avoiding the structural redistribution that would not only alleviate but eradicate the poverty”.  Poverty porn takes complex issues and makes them understandable to the masses (Roenigk 2007) meaning sustainable development is near impossible as the root cause of the problem is not removed. In most ‘underdeveloped’ countries the main reason for poverty is structural and governmental instability whilst most aid organisations would have us believe it is a lack of money and goods that is causing inequality. “Most North American audiences define poverty by physical suffering and a lack of material resources, while the poor define their condition psychologically and emotionally” (Roenigk 2007). If we really want to help we need to work with the local governments to ensure better equality throughout that region as well as being more honest in adverts about how much “you’re £X a month” actually impacts the lives of the receivers.

pp twitter

[Source: Twitter]

Media campaigns such as #TheAfricaTheMediaNeverShowsYou is one way in which people around the world have been trying to fight this ‘poverty porn’ by showing the more developed and relatable side of everyday life in ‘underdeveloped’ countries. Images of modern university buildings and exotic islands, among others, have been circulating the internet to try and put an end to what the west perceives to be the ‘true’ Africa/ South America/ other non-globalised country.  Interestingly, however, in the comments of Tyler Fyfe’s article about the campaign there is a lot of backlash to these ‘anti-poverty porn’ images with many Africans saying that these are still western images of what we believe ‘developed’ looks like and that they still don’t show the ‘real’ story.

When people try to celebrate Africa, they do so by trying to make Africa look globalized. So for example, they show flashy modern buildings in Khartoum or skinny models that conform to western standards of beauty. Or tourist locations. Pathetic. Africa is so much more than this. It’s ancient cultures, it’s mud huts, it’s ecologically sustainable foraging tribes and agrarian practices… these are the pearls of African wisdom that colonialists with their exploitive and ecologically self-destructive cultures can learn from. – Michael Kleider

In order for this to change, charities need to work with the people they are portraying and ask them how they want to be represented. We need to stop using our voices to speak for them and we need to stop reflecting our ideas of ‘development’ onto them.

I am now extremely critical of these propaganda style images due to the single minded ignorance they encourage and the structural change they avoid to seek. In all honesty, although we should, I don’t think we will ever stop the practice of ‘poverty porn’ and simple charity because, even though it is unsustainable, it makes us feel better about ourselves and is undeniably effective at raising money.




-Aid Thoughts (2009) What is ‘poverty porn’ and why does it matter for development? [Online] 1st July. Available from: [Accessed: 29/11/15]

-Dogra, N. (2007). ‘Reading NGOs visually’—Implications of visual images for NGO management. Journal of International Development, 19(2), 161-171

-Fyfe, T. (2015) Africans are fighting media poverty-porn by tweeting beautiful images of their real lives, The Plaid Zebra [Online] 4th July, available from  [Accessed: 17/11/15] (Michael Kleider’s comment can be found here)

-Humanosphere (2015) Op-ed: Is NatGeo’s New #EndPoverty Contest Just More Poverty Porn? [Online] 24th July. Available from: [Accessed: 19/11/15]

– Hutnyk, J. (2004). Photogenic poverty: Souvenirs and infantilism, Journal of visual culture, 3(1), 77-94

-Meikle, G. (2013) Poverty Porn: is sensationalism justified if it helps those in need?, The Guardian. [Online] 5th July. Available from: [Accessed: 18/11/15]

Roenigk, E. (2014) 5 Reasons poverty porn empowers the wrong person, [Online] 9th April. Available from: [Accessed: 18/11/15]

-Wainaina, B. (2006) How to Write About Africa, Granta [Online] Available from: [Accessed 17/11/15]


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