You’ve seen these commercials, on the low-rent cable channels where the advertisers are trial lawyers and companies with 800 numbers hawking “amazing” products. You see a starving child, in the middle of a decrepit village in Africa. You can save this child, you are told, for a low monthly payment. That money won’t only bring cash, you are told—you are bringing hope.
These commercials have been around a long time. They’re a central plot point in Alexander Payne’s 2002 film About Schmidt. They must be effective, because they haven’t changed in decades. But a group of Scandinavian critics have condemned them as “poverty porn.”
In 2012, the nonprofit Norwegian Students and Academics International Fund (whose acronym in Norwegian is SAIH) decided to satirize these ads. I wouldn’t normally pay much attention to this group, but the video they created, “Africa for Norway,” is brilliant.
We see a group of Africans, who say they are grateful for Norwegian aid and want to give something back. We see helpless Norwegians slipping on the ice and trucks stuck in snowdrifts. But help is on the way! Radiators from caring Africans are being sent north to provide heat for frigid Scandinavians. And at the end there’s a song where people clap and sway their bodies, breaking for inspiring solos by stars, just like in “We Are The World” and all its imitators.
What makes “Africa for Norway” a superb satire is that it’s very well produced and competent. Whoever wrote the song at the end (the credit is to “Bretton Woods”) is a professional, and the singers are also quite good. The message is quite clear: videos where white people go to the Third World and save helpless black people send the wrong message.
I believe the term “poverty porn” was coined by Jorgen Lissner of the Danish NGO Danchurchaid in this 1981 article from the Marxist magazine New Internationalist. Lissner in his piece offers a great deal of heavy breathing about how advertisers manipulate us because they are Tools of Capitalism. He also says that “starving child” advertisements are unethical “because it helps to keep the myth alive that material wealth is the very foundation of a decent quality of life,” even though hundreds of millions of poor people around the world would dearly like more cash.
Where Lissner is right is when he says that “starving child” ads exhibit “the human body and soul in all its nakedness, without any respect for the person involved.” The hopeless people in these ads aren’t people; they’re objects of our pity, who can never change or improve their station in life.
SAIH has turned its critique into awards which give the videos they deem to be the worst aid videos the Rusty Radiator Award and the best the Golden Radiator. All of the nominees are linked to on their website.
The three finalists for 2017 all featured celebrities, including actors Tom Hardy and Eddie Redmayne and singer Ed Sheeran. The jury awarded Mr. Sheeran and the nonprofit he represented, Comic Relief, the prize. Mr. Sheeran travels to Liberia and sees starving children sleeping in a canoe. “There are two tiny things sleeping near me,” he says. (Liberians aren’t people to Sheeran; they’re “things.”) At one point he proposes taking all the Liberians he is seeing and putting them in a hotel, without thinking about whether or not this is a good idea. (One suspects Mr. Sheeran would do poorly in the BBC’s “Brain of Britain” quiz show.)
By contrast, the winner of the Golden Radiator Awards for best advertisement went to War Child Holland. We see a desert camp with a child playing in the dirt. Suddenly, Batman shows up! But Batman doesn’t fight bad guys; he plays hide and seek with the kid and acts as the goalie for a game of soccer. Then Batman sits around a campfire and plays a mandolin. Finally, we see Batman walking down a dusty road carrying the kid—and Batman is revealed to be the child’s father. The child fantasizes Batman is his friend as a way of dealing with the problems in his life.
“The only way some children deal with reality is fantasy,” the ad concludes. What makes it work is that the child is not another passive grief magnet but someone who laughs, has dreams, and finds some pleasure even in a terribly grim situation.
The only American Golden Radiator finalist was an advertisement from Save the Children that deals with “unboxing.” Children receive presents and open them. An Asian girl is looking forward to playing with her doll. A Latino boy likes his toy rifle because it is bigger than that of his little brother’s.
Then the children open their boxes and inside the doll box is a pregnancy kit and inside the rifle box is a pick. Their adult lives will start before they become teenagers. When you give to Save the Children, the ad concludes, you “let children be children.”
The problem with “poverty porn” ads is that they give a very constricted view of the Third World.
They tell donors that the poor are hopeless ciphers who can do nothing to climb out of poverty and can only be saved—temporarily—by donor aid. What donors should be told is how their gifts make other people’s lives better. We want to know how people who get our gifts will improve themselves or their situations. “Poverty porn” ads eliminate the possibility that poor people’s lives can change. That is why they are misleading.
There’s also a hunger for good information about how people in other countries actually live.
Here I can recommend “Dollar Street,” a project created by Dr. Hans Rosling’s daughter, Anna Rosling Ronnlund, for Sweden’s Gapminder Foundation. (I've written about Dr. Rosling at Philanthropy Daily here.)
Here are photos of people with widely varying income levels all doing the same thing—children playing with toys, adults cooking and sleeping. The result is a great deal of useful information about what other people’s lives are like.
Of course donors will continue to respond to advertisements. But the point of the Golden and Rusty Radiator awards are that campaigns for development nonprofits are more effective when they don’t traffic in obsolete and condescending stereotypes of what poor people are like.
(Hat tip: Nonprofit Quarterly)
 Those of us who have spent hours watching Mr. Hardy mumble through masks (as in Dunkirk and The Dark Knight) or speak in incomprehensible accents (as in The Krays) will be pleasantly surprised to learn that he has a very good voice when he is allowed to use it.