Sheila Ojei is the Director of Strategy, Partnerships and Stakeholder Management at the Lagos State Employment Trust Fund (LSETF)
When you think of poverty, what is the first visual that comes to you?
A basic image search of the word ‘poverty’ will show you images of impoverished African, Middle Eastern and Asian children. It’s the visuals that we have been shown for years, flies perching on a child too hungry and too weak to move, families living in dilapidated mud huts, communities buried in filth, and so much more… it’s what we call ‘poverty porn’, the emotional manipulation which exploits the poor’s condition to generate the necessary sympathy for selling a cause…basically clickbait.
Let’s be honest; we are all guilty of it; impact storytelling always follows the format of the sad backstory, the hero/saviour moment and the happily ever after.
In defining poverty, we consider the most widely accepted definition, earning less than $2.15 a day. By this measurement, anyone lacking enough financial resources falls below the poverty line and fails to meet a minimum standard of living. However, The World Bank Organization describes poverty as:
- A lack of shelter
- Being sick and not being able to see a doctor
- Not having access to school
- Not knowing how to read
- Not having a job
- Fear for the future
- Living one day at a time
In order words, poverty has many faces, changing from place to place and across time, affecting all races.
In communicating impact, we must avoid the stereotype of using depressing images and language. How we communicate our impact, especially as Africans, is crucial in shaping public perception and influencing action. The language we use and the stories we tell can often perpetuate harmful stereotypes and create a sense of hopelessness rather than inspiring meaningful change.
Poverty Porn is NOT Impact Storytelling
To avoid the stereotypes in communicating impact, here are some things you should consider
Focus on the people. Rather than portraying individuals living in poverty as helpless victims, we should highlight their agency, resilience, and strength in the face of adversity. This can be done by sharing stories that showcase their skills, talents, and contributions to their communities rather than solely focusing on their struggles.
Watch your language. Be mindful of the words you use, words like “poor,” “needy,” or “disadvantaged” can reinforce negative stereotypes and create a sense of pity rather than respect. Instead, you can use more neutral or positive language that emphasises the diversity and complexity of the experiences of impoverished people.
Let them tell their story. Avoid leading questions or embellishments, especially when scripting ‘documentaries’. Your questions/scripts are meant to act as a guide while allowing them to express themselves in their way.
Identify the root cause. You should communicate poverty and its impact in a way that recognizes the root causes and systemic issues that contribute to it. This means going beyond individual narratives and acknowledging the role of factors such as inequality, discrimination, and lack of access to basic services like healthcare and education. By doing so, you can create a more nuanced understanding of poverty and inspire collective action to address its underlying causes.
Be Solutions Focused. It is perfectly okay to highlight your initiatives and programs, but what is not okay is making it out to be the saviour. Communicate your impact as a solution to a problem. By focusing on solutions and highlighting the agency of individuals and communities, you can create a sense of hope and inspire action.
Be mindful of your visuals. There is a huge difference between a laughing child and a crying child in the same environment; one portrays helplessness and vulnerability, while the other portrays resilience in spite of.
We must avoid the stereotype of poverty porn and dehumanising visuals in the name of telling our impact stories. Emotional manipulation is not the call to action you seek; instead, it is damaging, reducing individuals to mere objects of pity rather than recognizing their dignity and worth as human beings.
Impact Storytelling is not poverty porn; it is one of empowerment and agency, where individuals are recognized for their resilience, ingenuity, and strength in the face of adversity.