Poverty Porn and Africa: Contributing Toward Dangerous Misperceptions.

Africa Insight
10 min readFeb 15, 2021

Allow me to ask you a simple question: what is the first thing your mind conjures up when I say “Africa?” Perhaps images of poverty featuring starving children and wide-spread malnourishment. Or maybe you’ll think of baron wastelands that are lifeless and destitute. You’ll probably think about all those “African dictators” that do nothing but “take our aid” with empty promises to stop their nefarious deeds, making the provision of aid pointless or morally reprehensible. Perhaps you’re thinking of the diseases and plagues that “ravage” the continent. If these examples did come up, I honestly wouldn’t blame you. Not because that is all there is to know about Africa, but because that is what we’ve been led to believe Africa is all about. These examples placate to an age-old idea that Africa is a continent of misery and turmoil, where progress is rare, and millions are condemned to a life of suffering because of weak conviction and little know-how. Sounds horrible, doesn’t it?

But what if, instead, I was to tell you that the way in which we frame and think about Africa is inherently flawed and misguided? What if we could appreciate that such images are all we are exposed to day-in and day-out, and those “rare” instances of progress are far more common than we are led to believe? What if, instead of condemning Africa to a perpetual cycle of cynical ideas and standards, we can begin to accept that such issues are far more nuanced than we initially thought? I pose these questions because perceptions of a place and its people are critical in influencing how we interact with said places and people. Our understandings can either be limited or prosper based on how stories are constructed and presented to us. If we hold constantly negative perceptions towards another place or group of people, then we limit ourselves to equally negative attitudes that serves no one. In the case of Africa, the way in which the continent is framed creates — and perpetuates — ideas of an “other” that emboldens harmful stereotypes.

At the heart of these harmful perceptions are the very organisations and charities that — while admirable in their intentions — push ideas and images that feed into our harmful views of the people their trying to help. This is encapsulated by the term ‘poverty porn’ which has become a staple in aid and development communication for decades. It can be defined simply as a tactic employed by charities and NGOs to gain empathy and financial contributions from donors through the sharing of desolate living conditions. The problem at the heart of this however is that it perpetuates ideas of “Africans” as hopeless. Without charity, communities are condemned to a life of abject misery, peddling the idea that only mercy can “save Africa.” Again, these charities and those who partake in them do have sincerely decent intentions. The issue, however, lies within the outcomes which are — by-and-large — counterproductive. So long as the myth of a poverty-stricken, dependent Africa perpetuates, little progress can be made to redress the serious harm that falls upon the continent because of poor understandings. Charities and the societies in which they raise awareness from must be dedicated to deconstructing toxic narratives about Africa in order to gain a better understanding of its potential to do great and marvelous things. To do that, attention needs to be focused on how damaging perceptions are constructed and, through awareness and education of the subject, can be deconstructed. That starts by calling out poverty porn and demanding fundamental changes to how these charities can better communicate their message and objectives.

The underlying argument in favor of poverty porn is that pictures of hunger, war, disease and injustice are pushed to the fullest possible extent to trigger an emotional response in order to raise a public awareness campaign against such cruel situations. While these charities have raised a considerable amount over the years because of the outrage generated from such images, the issue is that such images promote the idea that the victims are less human. This objects them to misconstrued perceptions that “they” are helpless, and “we” are their righteous saviors. This sentiment was captured in a report from the Voluntary Overseas Service (VSO) titled The Live Aid Legacy, which found that, because of Live Aid, 80% of the British public associated the developing world with “doom-laden images of disaster, famine and Western aid.” Consequently, feelings of superiority over a dependent, poverty-riddled population begin to fester and plague the national psyche with the idea that Africa can only progress with the help of the West. Consequently, the report gives a harrowing conclusion: “This relationship pigeonholes and constrains developing countries, creating the impression of a one-way, rather than two-way relationship. In turn, this limits our capacity to learn and benefit from such countries and cultures.” The fact this report came out with such findings 16 years after Live Aid demonstrates how ingrained negative stereotypes have become in the national concise. This is compounded by the fact that development and aid are incredibly intricate fields that have been subject to extensive academic debate for decades. Indeed, one survey by the Institute of Development Studies found a majority of the UK public felt uninformed about aid, with only 1 in 5 people considering themselves to be informed. I’m not going to pretend like I know the intricacies surrounding aid and development, but constant exposure to negative images paints a simplistic picture of an otherwise complicated subject. If all we are exposed to are negative stories and situations then our attitudes will reflect that negativity, creating harmful perceptions that limit our ability to make aid work more efficiently and ethically.

The use of poverty porn creates serious challenges for the very NGOs and charities that are circulating them. Over-exposure to such images eventually leaves people feeling numb to the emotional aspect such images are designed to create. For instance, polling conducted by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) found that constant exposure to such graphic material made participants feel like development initiatives were unsuccessful and that aid was ineffective. By relying so heavily on poverty porn, charities are pushing the idea that such challenges, in the long-term, are unfixable. Consequently, this puts people off when they see such images and therefore less inclined to make donations. This was confirmed in a poll by Oxfam showing 3 in 5 people being desensitised to images depicting hunger and poverty, as well as 1 in 4 people admitting to turning away from such images. Another report from UCL found that this does encourage people to donate, they disengage with the issue of the deeper level. Furthermore, it found that such images encourage people to donate out of guilt about what they’re seeing, reinforcing the idea that our charity and sympathy are the only weapons that can “save Africa.” This has eroded public perception toward aid and its effectiveness in several important ways. For example, in a poll of public attitudes across 28 donor countries, it was found that most citizens believed that living conditions in recipient countries have gotten worse despite studies showing marked improvements. This has led citizens to overestimate the amount their respective governments give in aid. In the UK, for example, people believed that aid took up 18.5% of the financial budget, even though it actually represented roughly 1% of government spending. The imperviousness to these images has been followed by growing resentment toward Africa and disdain for any form of assistance no matter how well intentioned it is. While other factors like economic nationalism and tribalism are relevant, there is no denying that poverty porn has had a counter-productive impact that feeds into these other influences.

Despite such negative coverage designed to expose desolate conditions, people in Africa express a more optimistic assessment of the future. For example, a poll conducted by the PEW Research Center found that a median of 50% of respondents across 8 African countries are certain their children will have a better future compared to 37% who believed things will get worse. In a recent Financial Times article, the African continent’s various successes in the field of public health, political stability and economic growth are highlighted. In light of the Covid-19 pandemic, you would assume that because we often think of Africa’s economy as weak, “riddled” with corruption and supported by aid that its economic prospects are doomed. However, this is a misconstrued and oversimplified assessment. In a recent op-ed piece, senior fellow in global economics and development, Landry Singè, highlights the six key developments that attest to Africa’s economic resilience in the face of the global pandemic. Yet despite these achievements and sense of optimism, perceptions of the continent remain dire, with stories of success absent from the wider narratives concerning Africa. Far from being a hopeless continent that is condemned to misery, progress is being made and there is a genuine sense that things will be better. What makes this difficult to realise are the images and stories constructed around Africa that feed into a harmful narrative. To make matters worse, many of these charities are reluctant to gain insight from the very people their trying to support. This not only continues the harmful notion that these communities are dependent but denies local agency and expectations. A Radi-Aid research paper polled people within Africa and found that even though such images were accurate, “many felt that the pictures provided a distorted view of low- and middle-income countries, for example by stigmatising poverty and deliberately over-dramatizing to create more impact and ultimately raise more funds.” There is therefore a clear difference between what aid organisations want us to see, and what reality is like on the ground. The persistence of poverty porn not only builds damaging stereotypes but also denies local expectations and realities, adding further to the idea that the only solution to Africa’s misery is Western generosity. By ignoring local variables, poverty porn represents another in a long line of criticisms levied against Western-orientated organisations for overlooking community expectations in the recipient countries.

In the face of this criticism, some noticeable progress has been made by these organisations to reform how they communicate the topic of aid and construct narratives about Africa. Recently, the UK-based charity organisation, Comic Relief, announced they would no longer send celebrities to Africa in an effort to raise awareness. This was in response to public backlash after a video featuring musician Ed Sheeran in Liberia was criticized by aid watchdogs as indulging in poverty and presenting outdated ways of communicating development. The announcement also included a series of commitments to work with African media organisations to raise awareness over the wider narratives about Africa to address negative stereotypes. While it may seem a trivial matter, this decision goes a long way toward deconstructing harmful stereotypes whilst restoring agency and dignity to those impacted by these images. Additionally, many political organisations like the EU and individual countries including Australia, Canada and New Zealand have introduced Codes of Conduct for NGOs to promote humanity, dignity and truthfulness.

These Codes of Conduct would be considerably stronger with legally binding requirements to disincentive the use of such images by ensuring accountability and public oversight. This may be considered to be a pretty drastic step to take. However, I would argue that growing insensitivity to these images will, in the long run, undermine these well-intentioned organisations and people to deliver positive change. The organisation where I am interning, Africa Insight, has taken an active role in highlighting the dangers of poverty porn. As South Korea looks to build new relations with the countries and communities of Africa, such campaigns are critical for shaping public perceptions and how the people of South Korea understand Africa and its people. The anti-poverty porn campaign can go a long way in fostering a positive narrative that will allow the peoples of Africa and South Korea to build a productive relationship based on mutual respect and dignity. Going forward, development charities and NGOs must be constantly vigilant for of the long-term impact they are having on public perceptions and attitudes. For their own credibility, as well as for the people they want to help, they must be prepared to undertake serious changes in how they communicate aid.

Overall, poverty porn lacks decency, respect and diligence for the people and the subject it covers when it comes to Africa. Singular stories of a starving child or victim of war presented through images may invoke an emotional response, but ultimately encourage ideas that do more harm than good. Toxic narratives of dependence, degradation and hopelessness need to be challenged at every level if perceptions are to be redressed. It is undeniable that these narratives are rooted in the practice and justification for colonialism during the “scramble for Africa”: the weak native that can only be “saved” by the West’s generosity. The exploitation and harm that proceeded this can still be seen today. Yet, unfortunately, poverty porn trivialises this by failing to take into consideration the historical contexts that permitted these challenges to occur. Poverty porn does encourage a sense of guilt, but charity based on guilt does little to combat constructed narratives of an entire continent that has more potential than we are led to believe. Africa is already giving much to the world in the form of promising action against the existential threat of climate change. Its leaders are already devoting themselves to fostering regional and continental organisations that encourage economic and social integration. It is a continent full of more optimism for the future than has been previously led to believe. This is critical context that is ignored in poverty porn and yet can go a long way in redressing how societies perceive Africa and its ability to address challenges on its own terms. The idea of a two-way relationship between Africa and the world is critical and must be taken seriously by development charities and NGOs. These poisonous perceptions have been built-up over a long time, centuries if we really think about it, and it will take time to deconstruct and rebuild in order to better appreciate the important role that Africa has to play in the global community.

About the author:

My name is James Manion and I am an intern for Africa Insight. I have a Bachelors in Politics and International Relations and a Masters in Diplomacy.

If you have any enquiries about this article and its contents, I’ll be happy to respond through email at jamesmanion146@gmail.com.

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Africa Insight

Africa Insight is a Seoul-based NGO with the aim of facilitating education and awareness surrounding African development, both in Korea and worldwide.