It’s the Holiday Season. Time to Exploit the “Poor.”

 by Marshall Stowell, Vice President, External Relations & Communications, PSI

The Guardian just posted the best and worst aid videos of 2016.

It’s disheartening to know that organizations still present one-dimensional and damaging depictions of people and poverty. The short term gain is funds raised and the long-term damage is the reinforcement of stereotypes that hamper true progress.

I grew up in the 1980’s – and still consider that music some of my generation’s best. There is one particular song that included all my favorite musicians – the 1984 release of Band Aid’s, Do They Know It’s Christmastime – it had a catchy hook and raised a lot of money. I was obsessed.

I blithely sang along to the lyrics, which I paid little attention to. At least consciously.

It wasn’t until years later (thanks to Google) that I researched the lyrics. I had a sense something was off but I had no idea how bad it was. It’s worth a listen – here’s the song with the lyrics visible – a regrettable start to Bono’s work as an activist and advocate.

Why does this matter? It reached number one in 13 countries, so millions heard it and digested the message. Turn on the radio and you’ll find it’s still in rotation today. It helped propel the concept of poverty porn to the masses and instilled in listeners a very distorted view of aid, Africa and poverty that we are still trying to undo, as evidenced by the “winners” of this year’s worst videos of 2016. It also helped shape public opinion and the world’s aid response – which included how funding was allocated.

As someone who has worked in the social sector the majority of my career, I’ve been guilty of this. And at PSI we haven’t been perfect, but we are making every effort to communicate our work and the people we serve with dignity.

Want to make a difference this holiday season?

Here are a few things that we all can do to help.

  1. For organizations and advocates – change the narrative.
    • Let her speak for herself.
    • If you do share her story, share her sense of agency.
    • Speak of her as a person, not as a disease or diagnosis.
    • Seek her authentic story, as complex as it may be.
    • Dispel divisive language that separates people, like “us” and “them.”
  2. Follow BarbieSavior on Instagram – the feed was created by two former aid workers and is a satirical reminder of good intentions gone awry in the worst way possible.
  3. Give to organizations that value the dignity of the people they serve.

I’d like to see a day where sites like Charity Navigator, Better Business Bureau and others evaluate organizations on the dignity of their services and the depictions of those they serve along, with their overhead rates.

After all, we’re talking about people’s lives.

Video credit: wleix3/YouTube

Photo credit: Mark Tushman