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The Evolution of Poverty Porn

November 2, 2009

This year the aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres has gone down an interesting path to appeal to donors to give more funds: by making their advertisements and appeals more ‘raw’ and ‘real’ than ever before. MSF, known for their unusually graphic ads and shameless poverty porn, have traditionally defended their position by highlighting their desire to bring to Westerners the true voice from the field. In doing so, they have made sure to show just how brutal and ugly conditions can be for people in war-torn areas and victims of conflicts, disease and natural disasters.

In the ’80s, they featured a famous print campaign that said “MSF: we save the lives of Arabs and Africans. If you don’t like that, don’t give us your money.” Straight-forward, brutally honest, and walking the fine-line between appropriate and inappropriate. But have they gone too far this time?

MSF ads have always carried a punch, and they’ve stormed through the late noughties discussion of what photos are and aren’t appropriate for western NGOs to use in depicting the third world, blasting photo after photo of malnourished African children being treated by (usually) western MSF doctors. If there is such a thing as ‘poverty pornography’, MSF is the sheize porn of the development industry.

Even their ‘fun’ ads have been brutally violent, as evidenced by their recent ‘T-shirt’ campaign:

This year, MSF released an ad entitled ‘Boy’, using only a still-image of a hut (presumably in Africa, but it’s never explicitly stated). Over this image, a looping track is played with the audio of a young boy howling in pain (and fear, and confusion). The howls are haunting, and of for good reason: they are actual audio footage taken from the field. Best (or best not depending on your sensibilities) to watch the video for yourself:

‘Boy’, rightly or wrongly, sparked a huge debate amongst blogs and the Twiteratti. Some people pulled their financial support from MSF, arguing that this was exploitative of both the victims and the donors. The debate was so big that MSF responded by encouraging the debate on their website.

Despite all the drama the ad provoked back in August, here we are in November with a very similar ad, which is arguably even more controversial, this time entitled ‘Girl’, which you can view here. Again, a still-photo was used with real-life audio of a woman giving birth through heavy bombing.

But what to think? Does the move from poverty-porn still pics to real audio suggest that charities have to take that extra step to appeal to de-sensitised Western audiences? Ultimately, it depends on what MSF is hoping to gain from this. After watching ‘Boy’, Laura Freschi wrote:

After watching this ad several times (I don’t recommend you try this), I feel 1) deranged and 2) hopeless, as though nothing I could ever do, much less donate a few dollars to MSF, could possibly have any effect on the vast, incomprehensible suffering in the world.

I see her point– watching that ad does give you the impression that the situation is helpless, and no matter how much you may give to MSF, it will not change the basic realities and horrors of the situation many in the world are placed in; if anything, it only provides a (literal) band-aid solution to complex problems.

Fair enough, but here’s the thing: I hate to break it to the Laura’s of this world, but actually yes you’re right that nothing you could possibly do will have any effect on the “vast, incomprehensible suffering in the world”. And if it takes an MSF ad to make you realize that donating a few dollars a month will not actually end world hunger, then in my mind MSF has not only achieved its goal of truly portraying the realities of the field, but actually, whether intentionally or not, made a much more radical, maybe even more ‘moral’, statement as to the limits of their own capabilities than other similar organisations might dare.

NGOs aren’t going to solve anything big anytime soon. On a good day they save a few lives while contributing as little as possible negatively to the absurdly complex political problems of the world. But expecting them to stop wars and violence might take a bit more than a few dollars a month.

Watching the MSF ads, like Laura I felt sick, depressed and hopeless. But above all I felt beneath it all I was feeling was in fact an accurate reflection of what can and cannot be done with the capabilities and mandate of an organisation like MSF.  In ‘Girl’, MSF never claimed they did or could do anything to stop the teenage girl from being raped by the soldiers or stop the bombs from dropping. What they could do was to operate on these patients in these kind of difficult conditions. That was all.

Depressing? Yes. Hopeless? Arguably. Realistic? Absolutely.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. November 5, 2009 9:55 pm

    Great post…


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