In a way, the 1980s were a golden age of charity campaigns. American televisions became saturated with the pull-at-your-heartstrings displays of “We Are the World” and the star-studded Live Aid concert, which raised $150 million to combat famine in Ethiopia.
These campaigns made liberal use of images of emaciated children with flies in their eyes — it was a trend that was inevitably criticized for oversimplifying chronic poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa. Critics called this sensationalism “poverty porn,” and charities gradually evolved to more nuanced advertising practices.
But now critics say poverty porn is making a comeback, and it's ultimately damaging as far as improving the long-term welfare of developing countries.
"People in developing countries are not incapable or passively awaiting rescue," Jennifer Lentfer, a former lecturer on global development communications at Georgetown University, told NPR. "Poverty, conflict, disasters, injustice is heartbreaking, but it doesn't mean people are victims."
In 1989, many nonprofits had signed on to a code of conduct from General Assembly of European NGOs that scorn "pathetic images" and "images which fuel prejudice."
But in 2013, a complaint was filed about a controversial advertisement from Save the Children. Partos — an NGO that serves as an umbrella organization for development nonprofits — heard the complaint and said there's no obligation for nonprofits to abide by the code. Since then, John Hilary of New Internationalist magazine has noted that poverty porn tendencies are creeping back in.
The blog Africa is a Country dedicates itself to demonstrating how these oversimplifications do a disservice to the eradication of poverty.
In their view, poverty porn leads to apathy in rich countries: When nonprofits present poor Africans as the helpless beneficiaries of Western generosity, this propels a sense of inevitability of the circumstances. When images of poverty are used, the blog context should be presented so Westerners understand the specific root causes of the poverty in question. They say photographers need to get consent from their subjects and allow space for self-representation so they are not stripped of their dignity.
Beginning in 2013, aid organization Norwegian Students’ and Academics’ International Assistance Fund has been holding conferences on the issue, applauding advertising campaigns that highlight solutions to poverty while giving out ironic “awards” to those campaigns deemed harmful to development efforts.
To mock the stereotypical aid campaigns, the nonprofit created an "Africa for Norway" charity single in 2013. The premise: Norwegians are freezing to death and they need Africans to provide radiators.
Although extreme poverty has been cut in half since 1990, many often perceive African poverty as a permanent condition that can be contained but not ended.
"There are high levels of concern about waste and inefficiency in the distribution of aid, and it appears that this has been reinforced by some of the communications and fundraising images used by NGOs and governments," The Institute for Public Policy Research found in 2012. "The repeated use of images that show people living in desperate need has created an impression that very little has changed over the past few decades.
However, a jarring dose of pathos has continued to prove effective in spurring action.
NBC hosted a charity special “Red Nose Day” in May, and the three-hour program featured short documentaries of actors Jack Black and Michelle Rodriguez interacting with children in the most destitute of conditions. Their teary-eyed appeals brought in $21 million. When the body of a 3-year-old Syrian refugee was photographed on Turkey’s shore last month, it made the front page of newspapers across Europe and helped spur quicker action from governments to address the migrant crisis.
In the short-term, "audiences are more likely to make a financial donation when an ad shows a child that is suffering, rather than happy and healthy," according to Emily Roenigk of The One Campaign.
However, Roenigk says that these messages distract from actions that create long-term sustainability.
"In reality, successfully addressing poverty means empowering the poor to transform their own communities, even admitting our own inadequacy and ignorance in understanding the true nature of poverty," she said.