09 Oct

Bring the pain closer: Why we fail to communicate poverty with humanity

Trigger warning: For illustrative purposes, I have used one video clip in this blog from an anti-poverty campaign advertisement, which may cause distress.  In other sections, I describe certain images which are distressing too. I have marked these descriptions with a ‘TW’ at the start and end of the section describing the image.

When we search online for images of global poverty, the most frequent depictions of poverty are not of poverty but the effects of poverty. Images of emaciated children and people living in extreme depravation were once used ad nauseam during the late 20th century to elicit sympathy and money from the viewer. In attempting to add a human face to poverty, these images not only dehumanised their subjects but also failed to demonstrate the systemic causes of poverty. These campaigns were impactful in raising funds but had long-term negative consequences for one woman in particular, Birhan Woldu.

TW The first Live Aid concert in 1985, organised by Bob Geldof to raise money for the famine in Ethiopia, was a catalytic moment in gaining public support for global development. During the concert, a video clip of emaciated children was shown, featuring Birhan Woldu. Woldu became the face of the campaign and has later criticised the impact of the video and its ensuing notoriety on her ability to live an independent life. TW

In an article published last year, Woldu reflected that while Live Aid’s fundraising efforts positively impacted so many people’s lives, ‘For me, personally, Live Aid has done nothing. I am branded as the symbol of Live Aid due to the image of the 1980s. My stories are well documented and have reached the skies. But I live underground. The state I am in at this moment is miserable. I do not have a job and I cannot support my family on my own.”’ This interview led me to question the narrative we communicate in our work.

Having faced major scrutiny about the use of media such as the Live Aid video featuring Woldu, the sector has consciously worked to change its approach. An example of these efforts, is the Code of Conduct on Images and Messages, a sector wide framework created to encourage communications promoting the following values:

  • Respect for the dignity of the people concerned;
  • Belief in the equality of all people;
  • Acceptance of the need to promote fairness, solidarity and justice


The seven principles of the Code are outlined below:

  • Choose images and related messages based on values of respect, equality, solidarity and justice;
  • Truthfully represent any image or depicted situation both in its immediate and wider context so as to improve public understanding of the realities and complexities of development;
  • Avoid images and messages that potentially stereotype, sensationalise, or discriminate against people, situations or places;
  • Use images, messages, and case studies with the full understanding, participation and permission of the subjects (or the subjects’ parents/ guardians);
  • Ensure those whose situation is being represented have the opportunity to communicate their stories themselves;
  • Establish and record whether the subjects wish to be named or identified and always act accordingly;
  • Conform to the highest standards in relation to human rights and the protection of vulnerable people.


As part of this shift to creating more humanising media, the development sector has also launched new approaches.

 The Narrative Project

One example is The Narrative Project, which is a series of guidelines created from research findings gathered in France, Germany, US and UK, to frame development ‘communications around’ the principles of; independence – people living in poverty deserve to be independent; shared values – people living in poverty share universal values and rights; partnership – tackling poverty requires working together with poor people to address the issues and; progress – communicating, in conjunction with the other three values, that development works.

An action research project was recently conducted with ten organisations trialling the Narrative Project in their communications. The success of the Narrative Project was assessed on five outcomes to identify whether the approach provides a positive or negative effect. On the outcome of ‘helping to change perceptions of global poverty, build support and change the public conversation’, the Narrative Project proved to have a moderate to good effect.  On the outcome of increasing donations through fundraising, however, the Narrative Project had a negative effect, meaning than it did not increase donations any more than non-Narrative Project approaches being used by the organisations did.

Interestingly, the results also revealed the tension between adopting the Narrative Project and its rhetoric of progress versus adopting the rhetoric of fundraising which seeks to justify the need for the organisation and its interventions.

Despite consistent efforts being made to shift harmful practices in development communications, progress in this field is hampered by the fact that all approaches still require that the communicator creates a monopoly on the narrative of development. This monopoly is composed of four aspects; that the communicator maintains power over what story is told about development, who the story is told for, the purpose of the story being told (i.e. to raise money/awareness) and lastly, the role of the communicator in the development process (as change agent/ enabler). In reality, the relationship between poverty and development has many actors, many narratives and many solutions, far too complex to communicate in a 30 second advert. Unless simplified, applying all these complexities in a brief advert is an impossible task and to communicate one simple solution is a futile one.

Experiencing poverty

Another issue with monopolising the narrative of development is that the audience whom these adverts are made for, may want to engage with these narratives in a specific way, thus influencing the format of the message and consequently, the extent to which the reality of poverty can be expressed.

Take for example, the use of experiential marketing in development. Instead of having the consumer passively receive the content, experiential marketing encourages the active participation of the consumer with the product through the use of multi-sensory experiences. It is a growing trend in the marketing field;  as former M&C Saatchi director, Hew Leith, says, ‘In the old world, agencies would have created an ad, pushed it in front of you, annoyed you and bashed you over the head with messages until you bought something…In the new world you create an amazing experience. Not only do you want to get involved in it, you give up your time, get in a queue, wait to do it and then share it online because you are happy to.’

Experiential marketing is increasingly popular in global development communications. Examples include:

‘Progress’ narrative advertisements

These advertisements emphasise the interconnected reality of our globalised world to encourage direct action on issues by making the link between direct actions and direct experiences in ‘developing’ countries.  An example of this is the Oxfam advert below, published in 2015. Note the use of the principles identified in the Narrative Project, communicated in the content and visual direction of the video.

However, the narrative of dependence (of viewer as helper and the subject as helped) remains the same, abruptly interjected at the end of the video, ‘Whether you shop, donate or volunteer, start ending {global not local} poverty from your high street.’

Simulating poverty

These campaigns raise awareness and funds by requiring the viewer/consumer to temporarily live in the conditions of people living in poverty. Campaigns include ‘Live below the line’ and the ‘Day in her Food’ campaign by Hunger UK which ‘challenges participants to live one day (or more) experiencing what a woman living in chronic hunger in Senegal, Bangladesh, or Peru, would eat, understanding to small extent what life might be like for her, and fundraising for our work empowering communities to end hunger.’ Simulating poverty transforms the long-term and systemic nature of poverty into an experience; a short-term and decontextualised depiction of an issue that goes far beyond the symptoms being exploited.

Virtual reality

Virtual reality is also being used to communicate the environment of poverty to the viewer. Using a series of short films, the viewer is immersed in a war stricken region in Syria or a refugee camp in Jordan, with the aim of eliciting empathy; literally putting yourself in another’s shoes.   These strategies elicit empathy but empathy only as the emotion we experience. Is emotion enough to instigate action for social change? It is an effective tactic to raise money or cause someone to sign a petition but is it enough to do the long-term work of mobilising, organising, committing and doing?

The decisive moment: Art, photojournalism and communicating complexity with humanity

 In monopolising the narrative of development, development communications miss opportunities to amplify the existing tensions between the global interconnectedness of our world and the uncomfortable reality that poverty, injustice and lack of human rights happen locally just as much as they happen globally.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, the iconic photographer, created the term, the decisive moment; the moment context, subject and the photographer’s skills align to make magic. Photography, more generally, has done better than development communications in capturing that decisive moment to communicate an issue with impact. TW Take for example, the image of Aylan Kurdi, who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea while trying to escape the ongoing war in Syria. The images of his lifeless body, prompted a seismic shift in the global discourse on the refugee crisis. TW


Above: Aylan Kurdi, who drowned on the Mediterranean Sea while trying to escape from Syria with his family

Similarly, Warsan Shire’s poetry has become emblematic of the interconnected experience of living in an unstable world, moving away from the notion that pain and terror only exist in the third and fourth worlds.


Above: An excerpt from Warsan Shire’s poem, what they did yesterday afternoon, which has been used repeatedly to communicate the global nature of terrorism

These two examples communicate reality more effectively because they do not attempt to amplify a development actor’s role within the issue. Rather, they present an issue with all its complexity and consequences and allow you to determine the cause of action which warrants the perspective being presented.

Communicating development outside the sector is not always done in a humanising manner. Photojournalists, for example, are often criticised for the dehumanising images of black and brown bodies sold to media outlets. TW A most recent example is the New York Times coverage, on Thursday 6 October 2016, of a boat full of refugees, some dead and some laying lifeless and nearly naked. The caption describing the images on the front page of the newspaper, likened the scenes to the transatlantic ‘slave trade’. TW These dehumanising images victimise the individuals while implicating the viewer in the act of violence that is, to portray someone’s suffering while intentionally denying them the power to communicate their suffering or control the representation of themselves.

Critical alternatives for global development communications

How then should we communicate development and poverty? A Twitter chat hosted by Overseas Development Institute (ODI), last year, crowdsourced future alternatives on development communications. Solutions echoed some of the initiatives mentioned above such as contextualising the issue using specific details and moving away from the pity/sympathy rhetoric to a rhetoric of solidarity.

In his book, ‘Known and Strange Things’, art historian and writer, Teju Cole argues for the power of proximity when using images to communicate poverty and war. Rather than not publicising graphic images  depicting poverty, we should use them and bring them closer to home and our own realities. He explains, ‘One option is to resist the depiction of violence, to side with the reader who protests an unpleasant photograph and defends the bounds of good taste. But another- and to me, better – option is to understand that the problem is not one of too many unsettling images but of too few. When the tragedy or suffering of only certain people in certain places is made visible, the boundaries of good taste are not really transgressed at all. “We all have strength enough to bear the misfortunes of others,” La Rochefoucald wrote. What is hard is being vividly immersed in our own pain. We ought to see what actually happens to American bodies in situations of war or mass violence…We must not turn way from what that kind of suffering looks like when visited on “us”.’

Philosopher and geophysicist, Dr. Xavier Le Pichon, echoes Cole,  arguing that our capacity for humanity (= empathy) is built on proximity; seeking and allowing a closer and prolonged interaction with issues of poverty and injustice. He writes, ‘Our humanity is not an attribute that we have received once and forever with our conception. It is a potentiality that we have to discover within us and progressively develop or destroy through our confrontation with the different experiences of suffering that will meet us through our life.”

Social entrepreneur and writer, Courtney E. Martin attests that the best way to build this humanity is not to engage with these issues momentarily, such as virtual reality simulations but to situate ourselves long enough to experience the grinding impact of poverty and the complex tensions one has to deal with when addressing it. She writes, ‘There’s a better way. For all of us. Resist the reductive seduction of other people’s problems and, instead, fall in love with the longer-term prospect of staying home and facing systemic complexity head on. Or go if you must, but stay long enough, listen hard enough so that “other people” become real people. But, be warned, they may not seem so easy to “save.”’

The fringe benefits of doing it wrong; the power of the clapback

Communicating poverty and development wrong has brought a silver lining; the space for the ‘global South’ to ‘clapback’ on these narratives. Digital campaigns such as the #SomeoneTellCNN hashtag, created in response to the network’s erroneous depiction of Kenya as well as the works of journalists like Asha Mwilu, who uses her work to subvert the dehumanising narratives of the African continent, are important contributions to the conversation. Although outside the development communications field, they are in constant dialogue with what we are doing and may well usher in new perspectives on how development can communicate development and poverty with humanity and empathy.

The recurring question mark on global development communications is positioned within a deeper question on why we exist as a sector. Communicating a story about development and/or poverty requires us to situate ourselves within this story when we communicate it. Situating ourselves within the development story is an act we must perform not just in the campaign advertisements we create, but also in the proposals we write to donors and in the ‘lessons learned’ we cautiously share with the rest of the sector. Therein, lies the problem. We use our communications not to justify why the issues of poverty are important but the importance of our role in these issues.  The problematic aspects of global development communications are problematic aspects of the development sector.

I do not have the answers. In this context, I assert, it is important not to have answers but to use this conversation as a segue to ask uncomfortable questions about the sector and our role within the process of development. As the saying goes, learning is not in finding the right answers but in asking the right questions.



Leave a Reply
Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *