One of the things that encouraged people to start the Progressive Development website was the use of images we found reactionary and counter-productive by major aid agencies who should know better.
Public purse-strings may well be unlocked by pictures of starving black babies, but that doesn’t excuse their use. Those pictures are exploitative and encourage viewers to think charity is the answer to the complex economic and political problems of development (it’s not just those on the left who criticise such imagery, as this post by Ian Birrell shows.) They frame the issue of development as one where we in the industrialised world are called on to solve the problems of the victims of global poverty, victims who cannot solve their own problems.
This only mildly updated version of the 19th century imperialist “white man’s burden” ignores the political dimensions of global poverty, and leaves unchallenged the role of western and now Chinese corporates in continued exploitation, tax avoidance and so on. In the long run, it also undermines the case for aid as merely one important aspect of development, by wrongly suggesting that aid can single-handedly solve global poverty – which it then manifestly fails to do.
Last week the media and public affairs officer of the Overseas Development Institute, Jonathan Tanner, praised the recent Oxfam adverts which have taken a different tack, using images of stunning African scenery and the strap line “Let’s make Africa famous for its epic landscapes, not hunger”. Certainly it’s a refreshing change from the images that have become associated in particulat with Save the Children. I’m not sure Oxfam should get top marks though: they’re still suggesting that “we” can solve the problems of “the poor”, without giving them the appropriate agency to act; and there’s still no challenge to the role multinational companies and industrialised governments play in keeping the poor that way. I think Oxfam may simply be making use of the ‘cognitive dissonance’ strategy that fuels so many PR campaigns: the message is actually exactly the same as the ‘starving black babies’ campaign, because that is the ‘frame’ it evokes, albeit by juxtaposing an alternative.
What Oxfam’s new strategy does set up though, is an interesting question about what imagery will be used by the “iF” campaign that aid agencies – chiefly Oxfam and Save the Children – will launch later this month, about food and hunger. Rumours about some quite ghastly imagery being proposed by creatives early on in the campaign planning were one of the factors that discouraged a lot of organisations from getting involved. We wait with baited breath.