Poverty Porn in Sport for Development

I have started reading a lot of ‘development’ blogs since I have been in Lesotho. I would like to think it's because I am trying to learn and stay engaged in what is happening, but mostly I think it's because after dark my town shuts down, I don’t have a TV, I read through the books I buy pretty quickly, and I have internet access. That means I end up wasting a lot of time on the blogosphere. I often come across posts that I find interesting, but I sit on them for a while until I find a way of reworking them into something more relevant to my line of work – sport for development.

Something that surfaces a fair bit is the idea of poverty porn. The term refers to the process in which an organization, in an effort to solicit funds or attention from concerned global citizens, will portray people as poor, starving, helpless victims. I would highly recommend checking out this blog post and photography project – Perspectives of Poverty - by Duncan McNicholl who is working with Engineers Without Borders in Malawi. Also I would recommend checking out William Easterly’s blog. He has one post titled ‘should starving people be tourist attractions;' like many of his other posts it initiated a discussion and further posts on his blog.

In terms of marketing I suppose it is necessary. If you want someone to donate to your organization or pay attention to your message it is important that your publicity elicits an emotional response and implies that the audience can help. It is especially important since you are attempting to have the audience donate to projects or organizations that are most likely operating in a country that the they have never visited before. Nicholas Krisof is a writer with the New York Times. He is often accused of producing poverty porn – depicting black Africans as victims and white foreigners as saviours. He recently hosted a youtube Q&A and had to respond to this question. His response was similar to what I describe. His justification is that he needs to grab the attention of the audience and the best way to do this is to have a protagonist that is white/american.

Because I am a fan of Right to Play on facebook I was sent links to some of their new advertisements earlier this year. They are just short clips, but the images and text are very loaded. The first commercial titled ‘assembly’ is of a young boy putting together a gun. The text on the screen says ‘let him be good at something else/ let him play’. It conjures images of victimized child soldiers and then pleads with the concerned viewer to allow him to play. The second commercial has a young boy playing in a dump, using an object - maybe a discarded computer component - as a toy car. The text pops up and says ‘this shouldn’t be so fun for him/ let him play’. Again, it represents a power dynamic where the child is a victim and the audience has the power to let him play – even though he is playing, just not in the proper way. Is it not slightly pretentious for us to dictate what should and should not be fun?

From a marketing sense the ads are good. I think they follow a similar formula to other Right to Play commercials and I believe that Right to Play is not doing too badly in terms of fundraising. Also, I might be a hypocrite for arguing against this type of advertising since I am sure that the images and emotions reflected in these videos played a role in me choosing the path I am on.

July 10, 2010


  1. I did actually see the Assembly commercial on TV. You have to admit it is a pretty powerful image, actually makes a bigger impact than the Garbage Dump....maybe because that image, outside of the background dump site, is pretty much what every kid in the world does in the backyard...except maybe not with discarded computer components!

  2. Unfortunately that's just how this messed up world works. Unless people think there is a problem, and usually a really sad one, and unless they think their money is going to help, they won't. With all of today's technology it would be nice if people were more informed about the reality of situations instead of having to be manipulated by images chosen by those looking for sympathy/money, but sadly that's not the case. I mean, even look at the image at the top of this page, at the start of your blog. Talk about evocative of suffering; but it caught my eye. I'm not judging, I'm just saying...


  3. Hello Anonymous,

    First of all, great comment, but I'm not a fan of the anonymous tag. Mostly because my family probably think I'm a big enough loser to post a comment on my own blog and then get into an argument with myself.

    Mentioning the picture I use is interesting. It made me think about why I chose it. To be honest I wasn't choosing it to high light poverty. I think it is mostly just the well worn global design that I like and in a way it represents my work in international sport. Also, I think that when my brothers and I were growing up we had many footballs that were in similar shape. I think if I wanted to play up the image of poverty there are much more dramatic examples of what children use for footballs in Lesotho. However, I am still happy that you brought it up and made me think about it.