Pretty As A Picture
issue 194 - April 1989
Pretty as a picture
The wide-eyed child, smiling or starving, is the most powerful
fundraiser for aid agencies. But no matter how effective the image,
the message can be very destructive. Paddy Coulter explains.
Appealing eyes pursue the reader like a latter-day Mona Lisa. 'Team up with a needy child,' reads an advertisement for Christian Children's Fund. Many organizations favour this fund-raising approach nowadays. Children crop up constantly. They are usually pictured alone but sometimes in groups - or in a classic 'Madonna and Child' composition. One UK study found that 60 per cent of fundraising photographs were of women and children portrayed as 'victims'.
Aid agencies now claim to exercise great care in the selection of images. 'We're not big on big-bellied children' is how Christian Children's Fund of Canada puts it. Paula McTavish, National Director of Foster Parents Plan in Canada, explains the current approach: 'We try not to focus on dying, emaciated children but on children in need, with pictures of sad, wistful-looking children with big, gorgeous eyes who stir some emotion'. Happier, more positive images don't bring in the money. These images are kept for 'the converted' who also get more information: 'You can't tell the whole story in an ad'. Foster Parents Plan of Australia are also satisfied with the way they tackle the issue: 'We believe our photographs and messages capture the need, and yet maintain dignity and strength of character'.
George Smith, chairman of the London-based advertising agency, Smith Bundy, believes that progress has been made. In the past Smith has worked for Oxfam, Action Aid and War on Want. He says: 'Charity advertising is rarely demeaning nowadays. The lesson that it should not demean was learnt a long time ago. It's an old battle which has very largely been won'.
But the starving child image is rarely absent for long - as one can see from a recent front cover of a leading left-wing UK magazine, New Statesman and Society. An article supporting the United Nations Association (UNA) appeal for Sudan gave the starving baby approach a gloss of legitimacy. The consciousness-raising can come later. What matters now is the money.' The UNA's advertising agency justifies shock tactics on the basis of expedience: 'We tried to make advertisements far more positive - and get away from the 'starving baby' image. But no-one dipped their hands into their pockets. The only thing that does it is guilt: you have to shock people'.
Indeed the advertising which has recently been appearing for voluntary aid agencies portrays a universally squalid Third World full of passive, needy people - especially children. The television appeals are particularly disturbing. In Canada it is almost impossible to turn on TV after 11pm or throughout the weekend and not come across one of the many documentary-style shows aired by World Vision or Christian Children's Fund to promote child-sponsorship. The World Vision appeal takes viewers on a whirlwind tour of the world's children - just waiting for their prospective donors to pick up the phone. Last stop: northern Kenya and a slow zoom in on an embattled child's face. 'Help change one child's life - forever,' the voice-over intones, 'call right now.' With very few honourable exceptions, the causes of this suffering are never mentioned although we are assured that the solutions are easy.
Solutions are also cheap although the exact sum varies: it may be 'only eight dollars a month' or 'just 40p a day'. Very little is ever said about what Third World governments or local organizations are doing to improve conditions in their own countries. The language is invariably of 'them' and 'us' - the apparently helpless 'them' being helped by the neo-colonial 'us'.
A disturbing photographic variant is the depiction of a white Western adult alongside one or more 'wistful' black Third World children. A World Family advertisement, for example, includes a British TV personality who comes to the conclusion that 'we really can change the world, if we do it steadily, one child at a time'.
Save the Children Fund's (SCF) Christmas advertising in the UK avoids such crass claims. But it does mislead through omission. The impression given by SCF's copywriter is that the Fund single-handedly provides medical care and health-education overseas. Yet as SCF's excellent educational report Prospects for Africa attests, the role of small charities like itself is 'not primarily to provide a service but to enhance the ability of the people of the country to establish and run these services themselves... All SCF's activities are therefore undertaken in partnership with national governments or indigenous voluntary organizations.' But there is no mention of these partners in the advertisement.
One also looks in vain for references to the debt crisis or other international economic pressures which are squeezing the health-care budgets of so many poor countries: or explanations of the links between rich countries and poor - and a shared responsibility for the failure to protect millions of children against preventable disease.
The Oxfam UK Christmas ad is no better. The 'Perfect After Dinner Drink' may have substituted a more sophisticated graphic design for the appealing child - but the copywriter's approach is virtually identical. Again there is no suggestion of any local person acting as intermediary between 'the children like Musa Alif' in rural Somalia and Oxfam which provides the water pump. No hint either of the bloody civil war raging in Somalia which has created tremendous additional suffering.
Fund-raisers would argue that their ads make only a tiny dent in public perceptions. But several recent studies in the UK show that 'helpless-child' imagery has reinforced patronizing attitudes amongst young people towards the Third World - particularly in the wake of Band Aid and other African famine appeals. Whilst such appeals evoke compassion for Third World children, they also strengthen young people's perceptions of Africa as a helpless continent - in which the only healthy, happy people are 'aided' people. And they do nothing to help youngsters understand the connections between conditions in Africa and what happens in the West.
Worse still, the unbalanced diet of 'helpless-child' images and references to an underprivileged Third World rebound on ethnic minorities in the West. A group of young black Londoners recount their personal experience of adverse effects in a new educational video, Developing Images. Says one: 'All the images that we see of the Third World are negative. People associate me with the Third World and it makes their views towards me very patronizing because they feel the Third World is all about charity. It's almost as if they're being charitable by letting me in this country! That can fuel resentment and racism'.
One boy, Junior, recalls internalizing such racist feelings at school: 'People related underprivileged children from the Third World to me as well... I felt like I was inferior. It's not a nice feeling'. And several young women describe visiting their parent's birthplace in Pakistan and being staggered by the contrast between their expectations - generated by TV and charity appeals - and the reality. The experience made them aware of having implicitly accepted the stereotype of Third World people being 'completely helpless until white people come and help them'.
Says Junior: 'I'd feel a lot better if we saw black people helping themselves. It would hopefully improve the way people think about Africa - what Africans have done for themselves. Whenever we see these pictures we think the only things that are done in Africa are done by white people, which is just not true'.
Stripped of dignity
Advertising agencies frequently claim that such publicity material cannot be judged by non-professionals. But there are many people who understand rather better than copywriters and art directors what such images really mean. Representatives from African non-governmental organizations have attacked 'the image of Africans incapable of dealing with their own problems'. At last year's 'Images of Africa' conference, they pressed for a dialogue about fund-raising imagery. 'It is time to abandon the stereotypes of poverty and to substitute the voices of poor people themselves', argues one leading conference participant from Zimbabwe, Sithembiso Nyone.
She complains that too many voluntary agency initiatives strip Africans of their real dignity: 'As regards something like Band Aid, people were certainly saved and we are grateful. But we are living with that negative image. It has reinforced racism. It has reinforced the colonial mentality of looking down on Africa, which is a damaging attitude if you want to engage in a dialogue about human development with the West. Although Band Aid and the like addressed short-term necessities, we need also to look at long-term consequences'.
Paula McTavish of Foster Parents Plan in Canada is quite frank about the pressure on charities to spend as little as possible on fund-raising costs: 'We can't spell out the whole story to everyone. Other groups can spread the more positive experience - we can't do everything. We simply can't educate every Canadian'.
And as long as fund-raisers have to get as much cash as possible, international aid agencies will continue to exploit children. For fund-raising in these circumstances becomes an end in itself rather than a means to an end. The psychological needs of potential donors are seen as more pressing than those of distant Third World beneficiaries. Interestingly, anti-poverty organizations working for disadvantaged groups in the West like travelers (also known as gypsies) are obliged to refrain from this kind of racism. As one veteran fund-raiser admits 'travelers fly off the handle' if insensitive techniques are employed to raise money to help them.
Fund-raising adverts should reflect the real development issues. But for this to happen, international aid agencies will have to overhaul their priorities. They have to stop treating fund-raising as the overriding objective and accept some responsibility for public education.
Paddy Coulter is Deputy Director/Education Officer for the International Broadcasting Trust in the UK. He was previously Head of Communications at Oxfam UK.
1 The Image of Africa - paper given at The Conference for International Exchange on Communication and Development Between Africa and Europe, 1988.
2 See Images of Africa Project by Nikki van der Gaag and Cathy Nash, published by Oxfam UK, 1988. Also Awareness or Understanding? by Ross Grant and John Cameron, published by the Centre for World Development Education in the UK in association with the Hunger Project, 1988.
3 Developing Images, an educational video on images of the Third World. Available from the International Broadcasting Trust at £22.94 ($39) per pack.