I was disappointed to find, in a rare moment when I found myself watching live television the other day, this advertising campaign from VSO:
Yes, that’s right viewer. *Children in West Africa are dying right now* and the *only way we can save them* is to send *qualified white volunteers* to help. It has to be one of the worst examples of this kind of post-colonial “poverty-porn” – where people in developing countries are cast as helpless victims totally reliant on Western aid – that I’ve seen in a while. In the advert the white volunteer doctor works actively to save the sick child; the African doctors (whose faces aren’t even shown until towards the end of the video) either pass her bits of equipment or look on and watch her passively as she imparts her skills to them. They will learn from her so that they can save more lives, we are told – the implication that no African doctors are qualified enough to do their jobs is startlingly strong. And throughout the sequence it is made clear to the viewer that the most important part of this whole process is their donation – if they don’t give money, children will die.
What’s most disappointing about this advert is that VSO themselves published a research paper in 2002 called The Live Aid Legacy, which highlighted the impacts these kinds of negative portrayals of developing countries have had on the way they are perceived by the British public. The document concludes that it is vitally important for NGOs to use their campaign media to rebalance such one-sided, stereotypical portrayals in order to promote greater cross-cultural understanding and wider knowledge of the real issues in aid work (which are far more complex than typical NGO solicitations for funding make out). This means that when VSO created this advert, they must have been only too aware of the way it would reinforce what they themselves term the “false sense of superiority and inferiority” felt by people living in developed over developing countries, casting the relationship between Britain and Africa (and therefore also the British donor and the African recipients) as one of “powerful giver and grateful receiver”. Yet VSO chose to ignore their own advice on the negative impacts of this kind of advert and use it anyway. Why?
Sadly, the reason is almost certainly that VSO aren’t the only people currently using this kind of emotive advertising campaign. It’s a dog-eat-dog world when you’re an NGO and if survival depends on winning donations from the public, then its the most effective images that are going to be used, regardless of any long-term consequences they might have. Images of emaciated African children, helpless African mothers and hero Western doctors went out of fashion for a period in the early 21st century, largely due to a backlash inspired by The Live Aid Legacy and similar reports; however, they have made a return in the past few years. This is partly due to the potential of such crises as the East African famine, the Haitian earthquake and even the Japanese earthquake/tsunami (see Tales From The Hood for a scathing breakdown of the NGO response to that one) for creating a new donor base for NGOs. Unfortunately, the recession is also partly to blame – as belts are tightened and budgets cut, narratives that cast even austerity Britain as the benevolent giver to those in “real need” are likely to become more popular. It helps people in the UK deny that they might be facing anything difficult – a quick cast about for proof of the old adage “there’s always someone worse off than yourself.”
NGOs themselves often defend the kind of advertising they use in these terms – that it is the only thing that is effective, and longer, more complex explanations do not bring them the vital funding they need. The emphasis on the importance of the donor in VSOs advert exists because, to an NGO, the donor really is that important. However this approach, which effectively gives donors – who have themselves been influenced by de-contextualised and dumbed down portrayals of aid issues – power over which projects receive funding and which do not. The result is usually that funding is skewed towards short-term, photogenic projects that have an easy “hook” for the donor – for example, orphanages were found to be significantly over-funded in the wake of the 2004 tsunami – and away from the long-term infrastructure projects (particularly ones that involve local people from the grassroots up rather than hero Westerners) that are more likely to make a beneficial and lasting impact. It’s easy to spot the vicious feedback loop. It’s less easy to close it…
Of course, I’ve only touched on a few important issues in NGO advertising in this short post – if you’re interested in reading further then I suggest heading over to Good Intentions Are Not Enough. In addition to a whole bunch of excellent articles about the aid industry, they also provide advice on making sure you consider the long-term impact of any of your own charitable donations.