It’s a question that charities often debate: How should their fund-raising ads portray the people they’re trying to help?
If the ads display graphic human suffering to elicit donations, they run the risk of exploiting the subjects or making them look helpless.
If the ads are more upbeat — showing aid recipients who are smiling, for example — they may ignore the subject’s strife and put the power to transform the subject’s life in the hands of rich, Western donors.
While this dilemma is often discussed among charity professionals, the debate hasn’t always included the people in the images — the aid recipients themselves.
So a group of researchers wanted to turn the tables. What do those who are supported by aid think? That’s the topic of a new survey, “Which Image Do You Prefer? A Study Of Visual Communications In Six African Countries.”
The findings show a mixed bag of reactions from the survey respondents to 10 ads — but the most common emotion was sadness.
“Right now, I feel like we are inferiors as a continent. It’s as if we are always begging,” said one 22-year-old Ethiopian man. “I understand that there are some of our people who are in need, who cannot even have a meal a day. But are we the only ones to whom that happens? The Western countries have problems, too.”
Researchers from the University of East Anglia and Radi-Aid, a charity watchdog project of the Norwegian Students’ and Academics’ International Assistance Fund (SAIH), surveyed 74 people who live in communities supported by aid in Ethiopia, Ghana, Malawi, South Africa, Uganda and Zambia.
The participants were asked to share their perceptions of ads from international aid groups like Oxfam, Save the Children and CARE. Three ads featured a positive subject — a smiling child, for example — three negative, three neutral and one without a person in it.
A selection of responses were published anonymously in the report, as is standard practice with surveys, says David Girling, coauthor of the study and a lecturer at the School of International Development at the University of East Anglia.
One of the favorites was from a global education charity called Dubai Cares. A little boy with a big smile holds a handmade yellow truck. The text on the ad says “I can teach you how to make a car from a plastic jug. Can you teach me to read?”
“I love this [Dubai Cares ad], it shows that Africa has something to give as much as most of the adverts that show Africa to be in a place where they always have to ask and always look up to other countries to help. We also have something we can give out, that is why I like this one.” – Female, 22, Zambia
Another favorite came from Save the Children. A child refugee fleeing conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is shown in a glass box, as if she were a museum artifact. The text reads, “We must make this a thing of the past.”
“I like the Save the Children advert. Because it depicts that these people have no home. They have no shelter and no refuge. They have no place where they can go or nobody they can look up to.” – Female, 52, Malawi
One of the lowest-ranked ads came from CARE International U.K. It depicts a child in a ragged T-shirt with a sad expression, carrying a small jug of water. One woman said she wanted to know the story behind the picture.
“If you look at the child in the CARE advert, she is carrying a container of water, but we don’t know why … It has been [portrayed] as if the girl is suffering, but we don’t know because this is just a picture … I understand that maybe … if you bring such a picture, someone will feel sorry and give money.” – Female, 54, Malawi
In an email statement to NPR, Shabnam Amini from CARE International U.K. responded: “The CARE advert reviewed in Radi-Aid’s report is from 2013 … [and] is no longer used by CARE. While there is limited space in a print advert to tell somebody’s story, CARE ensured that additional information about the context and detail of Elsa’s story was held online at the time.”
Other criticisms of the ads overall included a lack of diversity in age groups, ethnicity and occupation.
“Out of 10 pictures, eight of them have used children. So why are they using children? And most of the children they are using are black. There are also white kids who are suffering. Why focus on kids as though it is the kids who are doing poverty? Why not cover their parents, or what they eat and where they live?” – Female, 48, South Africa
One of the most heart-wrenching aspects of the survey was how sad the advertisements made the participants feel, says Girling. He traveled to a focus group taking place in Johannesburg and observed everyone as they looked over the ads for the first time.
“People sat there shaking their heads in silence,” he says. “They felt sad that people in their own countries were suffering, and they didn’t have the ability to help them.”
“I went back to my hotel after that feeling quite choked myself,” he adds.
Even though the images elicited feelings of sorrow, 71 percent of the respondents found that the ads were an accurate representation of Africa’s state of affairs.
“If I look at all of these pictures that are in front of me, they are the things that are really going on in Africa. It’s really, really going on. You can see some countries fighting against each other, you can see some sickness too, you can see some people will be happy, so many different things.” – Male, 32, Ghana
And the respondents generally agreed that using “negative imagery” — what the report defines as images of a person visibly suffering from war, famine or other crises — is an effective way “to pull on heartstrings to elicit a donation,” says Girling.
“They said they need all the help they can get,” says Girling, who attended a few focus groups in person. “As long as the images were an accurate representation [of the issue] and didn’t exploit people, and the images didn’t involve nudity or bloodshed, then they were OK for [sad] pictures to be used.”
That surprised Beathe Øgård, president of SAIH and the report’s co-author. These are precisely the types of images that her project Radi-Aid have been trying to eliminate from the aid sector.
“Stereotypes and over-simplification [of development problems] create a skewed view of how Westerners look at Africa,” she says.
But perhaps, she adds, it’s time “to start a new debate and reflect upon the findings we’ve seen. It should be possible to show both negative and positive imagery.”