Longhurst: The end of famine porn

Dec 17, 2018 by

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It’s Christmas, a time for giving and also for asking. You will see lots of ads and letters asking you for money, including from aid groups.

John Longhurst

Longhurst

While you will see lots of photos of people in the developing world who need assistance, one thing I hope you won’t see is famine pornography. At least, I hope you won’t.

Famine pornography is the use of terrible images of dying children and adults, with flies in their eyes and distended bellies, in order to raise funds. It was common in the 1980s and 1990s.

The widespread use of famine pornography was roundly criticized for promoting a negative stereotype of people in the developing world. Images showed them as always needy, starving, desperate and helpless.

Though many denounced the practice, famine pornography continued to be used on TV and in print for one simple reason: It worked.

Back then, I was directing communications for Mennonite Central Committee Canada. Along with my American MCC colleagues, I was appalled by the amount of famine pornography used to raise funds. It was dehumanizing, undignified and disrespectful. None of us would want to be portrayed that way.

But how to stop it? That was the big question.

Instead of just joining the chorus of critics, we came up with another approach. We decided to set the bar higher.

In 1992, MCC created a code of conduct for reporting about needs in the developing world. In Canada, it was the first code of its kind for aid groups.
According to the code, MCC would portray people in the developing world in ways that affirmed their dignity, treated them with respect, promoted their skills and abilities and revealed them as active participants in efforts to improve their lives.

Of course, we would report honestly about urgent needs. But we would not use language or images designed to shock donors into giving money.

We announced the new code of conduct at a press conference on Nov. 25, 1992. It received widespread media attention.

For Canadians, the code was a game changer. For the first time, the media and donors in this country had a yardstick against which to evaluate NGO fundraising appeals.

It was also a brave thing to do. There was a chance MCC’s revenues would fall because people didn’t see tragic images of need. But it didn’t happen.

It would be wildly simplistic to suggest MCC’s code of conduct was solely responsible for the demise of famine pornography. But it played a significant part.

As was reported by Esther Epp-Tiessen in her history of MCC Canada, a leading authority in the Canadian humanitarian sector credited the agency in 1995 with raising the bar for others.

Today, famine pornography is the exception, not the rule. And every reputable NGO has a similar code to govern how it reports about and uses images of people in the developing world.

This isn’t to say images of extreme need should never be used. Sometimes we need a picture of starving children to shock us out of complacency — as  with what’s happening in Yemen, right now.

But those images should be never be overused, and they should never be the only kinds of images NGOs share about people in the developing world.

So this Christmas, if an aid group you support sends you an appeal that contains famine pornography, send them a note saying they should know better.

After all, the bar was set higher by MCC 26 years ago.

John Longhurst is a freelance writer and communications and marketing consultant in Winnipeg, Man.


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