Poverty porn.

Julie Cowdroy is well known to us on Mamamia not only as a political junkie – but as a singer and also as an Ambassador for  the Global Poverty Project.  Today she, together with Hugh Evans who is the co-founder and CEO of the Global Poverty Project educate us on the subject of ‘Poverty Porn’. Julie writes…..


There are few things that can stir an emotional response quite like an encounter with human suffering. It is in our nature to empathise with our fellow man and his or her plight. As such, it only seems logical that NGOs working to fight global poverty in the third world would find themselves walking the thin line between empathetic advertising and exploitation.For years, it has been commonplace for poverty-driven NGOs to utilise images of malnourished children as well as desolate and despondent people in their campaigns to raise awareness and funding. This technique, known in development circles as “poverty pornography”, communicates a hopeless situation of disrepair. These images suggest that those who live below subsistence lead a pitiful and wretched existence. Yet while there are countless stories of heartbreak and defeat amongst the extreme poor, does this one-sided appeal to our sympathies properly reflect the whole story of those suffering?

There is no question that this sort of advertising works as a method of getting the word out to a public that may, otherwise, ignore the problem. However, in the long run, it does not encourage people to think about the systematic challenges of ending extreme poverty. The use of these inflammatory images makes it difficult for the wider community to understand the reality of the issues surrounding extreme poverty. NGOs who portray the world’s most disadvantaged in such a manipulated light are reinforcing a crude “us and them” divide to the wider public, namely, that “they” are entirely and utterly dependent on “us”.

This message is a narrative that is an absolute myth on two counts. First, it strips the poor of the capacity, ability, power and sheer determination they possess to work towards an end to extreme poverty in their own lives. Anyone who has witnessed poverty firsthand, will readily acknowledge that among their numbers are some of the strongest willed, most tenacious people one could hope to meet. Of the 1.4 billion living in extreme poverty around the globe, there are countless unsung heroes.

Secondly, poverty porn negates the fact there are many projects across the developing world where the core business of anti-poverty agencies is to draw upon existing resources of impoverished communities. This capacity building approach to development identifies and accesses opportunities, and consequently, the men, women and children who are living in extreme poverty become agents of change, rather than external parties. This positions the disenfranchised in a place of power over their own lives.

The challenge for anti-poverty agencies is to effectively appeal to human sympathies in order to draw attention to the plight of the poor, while ensuring their subjects are conveyed as a dignified people determined to see an end to endemic poverty.

From Perspectives of Poverty

Duncan McNicholl, a member of Engineers Without Borders who works in Malawi, has started a photography project related to the issue of poverty pornography. McNicholl says, “[I] thought that these images were robbing people of their dignity, and I felt that the rest of the story should be told as well. Out of this came the idea for a photography project, [called] ‘Perspectives of Poverty’. I am taking two photos of the same person; one photo with the typical symbols of poverty – dejected look, ripped clothes – and another of this person looking their very finest, to show how an image can be carefully constructed to present the same person in very different ways. I want to bring to light some of the different assumptions we make about a person, especially when we see an image of poverty from rural Africa.”

The fact is that extreme poverty is real but poverty pornography is not. Despite this, it seems the practice has become a standard for NGO marketing. It is our hope that rather than engaging in this activity, NGOs would choose to portray the world’s most disadvantaged with the dignity they deserve.

[This piece was originally published in The Drum and has been republished here with full permission]


Julie Cowdroy

Julie Cowdroy is an ambassador for Opportunity International Australia and the Global Poverty Project. Hugh Evans is the co-founder and CEO of the Global Poverty Project.



Hugh Evans