Mawa taking Albendazole tablet delivered through our School Health and Nutrition deworming campaign

Poverty porn and fundraising

If you want to raise money for international development you will eventually encounter a dilemma.  You want potential donors to be interested in their fellow human beings and to feel a connection with the people they are helping.  You know that you will raise more money, and sustain a longer-term relationship with your donors if they are getting constant feedback about the people they are helping and the difference your programme is making.  Your communications team tells you that statistics are not enough: you need “human interest” stories about individual lives.  You need photographs and life stories.

The consequence is that you have to invest time and money in generating that feedback; and you have to extract that information from the communities where you work in a relationship that verges on exploitation.  At the thin end of the wedge it may be nothing more intrusive bringing your visitors to a school and expecting a welcome ceremony – perhaps some songs by the children and a shared meal under an acacia tree.  Towards the thick end of the wedge it means talking up poverty, using words like “famine” where it might not be appropriate.   And it means asking children and adults to prostitute themselves by writing letters of gratitude to their sponsors.

Here is a description of a charity “Doing a world of good” that sends money to Ethiopia

… World of Good was born six years ago.  It’s a simple concept: For $25 a month, donors sponsor children chosen by an organization Asmare runs in the city of Gondar, at the base of the Simien Mountains in the northern region of Ethiopia. It differs from programs such as Save the Children in that the money goes directly into an individual child’s supervised bank account, instead of being pooled with other sponsors’ money and used for community projects.

When I started to read about World of Good, my first impressions were favourable.  Giving money directly to children to use as they wish sounds like an empowering and progressive approach.  But as I read more I become uneasy, and then quite nauseous:

Reerslev and Gerdes made a pact not to open the letters to sponsors without each other present. When the box finally gets here, the two find a place and a time to sit together, reading each one, making sure the children are not asking for specific things or making a plea to be adopted, which is forbidden by the charity’s rules. Mostly, the two women just read, and cry. They parse through heartbreaking stories of children whose parents have died from starvation or AIDS, who have quit school so they could walk into the dangerous forests on the outskirts of their ramshackle villages to gather cow dung or timber for firewood, who have been too busy trekking miles to the nearest water well to spend time learning to read. … One girl, Tigist, lost both of her parents and, before she joined the program, was a 12-year-old trying to survive completely on her own, eating out of trash bins. She wrote letters to her sponsors that said, “You are my family,” “You are my guardian angels.” Tigist, who is now 17, just graduated from technical school.

This is poverty porn.  The children are asked to write letters, but the letters have to be censored to make sure they don’t go too far (we are happy to send you money but you must under no circumstances ask to come and live in our country).  The children write letters praising their sponsors as angels.

This is not only wasteful of time and effort, especially of the time of the poor, it is degrading to those involved.  Why should children be forced to write letters describing their lives in return for money to eat or have an education?

My indignation is not reserved for the people at “Doing a World of Good”, who doubtless mean well.  I understand why they feel they need to do this: it helps them raise money and that in turn helps them to make a difference. Their behaviour is the result of a broader problem, with the citizens of rich countries, who seem to be unwilling to sacrifice a tiny part of their income to help a fellow human being unless they feel some sort of personal connection with the recipient.   This is charity of a Dickensien sort: not a system of social justice and protection, but throwing some coins to a beggar in the street and expecting to be lavishly thanked.

Quenching the apptetite for poverty porn is rational for each charity, NGO and aid agency: that is what they need to do to survive; but it is socially harmful.  We have to work harder to convince the public to make contributions without the titillation of letters from children or logos on lorries, but based on systematic and rigorous evidence of the difference that their contributions are making.

20 comments on “Poverty porn and fundraising”

  1. dude, that’s why most of us are doing this work. at night we want to sleep the good sleep of the righteous, of the morally superior, the better than though. i for one, every time i have a superior latte with my pals in williamsburg make sure they know i am more charitable than they are and on my facebook profile i have a little app that collects angel points. if one of MY children i sponsor won’t write back acknowledging my generosity in naive but genuine words, that’s it – i cut their sponsorship.

  2. I agree with Owen. I see this way too much, especially since my father sponsors a child through World Vision. World Vision, like the organizations Owen pointed out, IS a great organization doing much needed work, but the letters tend to be more praise for the sponsorship and limited in how much detail the child reveals about their REAL life in the village. At the end of the letter there is a statement “As dictated to a World Vision program associate”, which I read to mean “Put into the context World Vision likes”. I am hoping that there will be letters from this girl, Hana, which really tell us more of what life is like from HER perspective.

    All in all it’s a tight line to walk, and I think this practice won’t go away anytime soon.

  3. I could not agree more with your reservations about DFID’s rebranding.

    However, with individual donations, I believe that the nexus may be more distorted. Take individuals with little insight into the aid industry for example. If they have concerns about the transparency and efficacy of the money they are donating (which is more likely following ‘Moyo-gate’ and the publicity it is receiving), it may seem sensible for them to choose the NGO or charity which ‘unequivocally’ demonstrates the positive impact their money is providing. Unfortunately, hard-statistics alone may not suffice.
    Of course, as you rightly stated, compelling people to write regulated letters can conceal other more pernicious aspects such as exploitation. This may be the darker side of ‘competition’ within the Development sector (that is not to deny that there are benefits which can be accrued too – as you highlighted in your recent paper).

    Additionally, there is also the difficulty of finding a balance between conveying the progress that has been made whilst also forewarning about the challenges which lie ahead.

  4. Good points, Owen,

    When donors “brand” their aid, it draws attention to the foreign donor, who will be seen as the responsible for the services or products. Meanwhile, to get out of a situation of dependence, it is important that the population looks to its own government or its own civil society as responsible to deliver these goods or services (duty bearer), and hold them accountable for it. Indeed, even if the money came from a foreign donor, the organisation and mechanisms for delivery are local and accountable to the local population. Branding destroys the local accountability feedback loop.

    Owen replies: I completely agree. This is an important point.

  5. I applaud your thought provoking view, although I think your analogy might be thoughtless. There may be actual child prostitutes that find the idea of writing thank you letters as much less degrading that prosititution! Besides that I have a question. Do they actually make child recipients write thank you letters to donors or do they just make these up? Have you witnessed it youself or spoken to any children about how they feel about doing it? What language are they written in? Its pretty impressive that these previously extremely poor children are now able to write AND in English too.

    Karen: you may not agree with my analogy, but it is not “thoughtless”. I have given it some thought. There may indeed be child prostitutes who would rather write letters to donors (though I would guess very few in Ethiopia) but that does not make it OK that rich people demand it of them. It is the practice that is offensive, not my description of it.

    I don’t know who actually writes these letters; and in some ways that is beside the point.

  6. I’m a bit skeptical, of the comments. Are you censoring which ones appear and which don’t? Any blog with only praise for the merits of the writer’s analysis leads me to believe he’s censoring all but the good ones. Well, let’s see if this one appears…

    Owen replies: I’ve set up my system so that comments have to be approved by me, to prevent spam. I approve almost everything – I don’t discriminate according to whether they are supportive or not, though I do reserve the right to block anything that is offensive or to terminate conversations that get tedious.

    And rather than casting apersions about my comments policy, do you have something interesting to say about the issue?

  7. Interesting and salient points. We have to be careful about blurring the lines between thanking donors, connecting donors with beneficiaries and providing impact feedback. The move in the UK to more direct feedback to donors (especially via online content) needs to be particularly well monitored, it concerns me that we should exploit beneficiaries for the sake of the Baby Boomer generation wanting a more ‘real’ donor experience

  8. A school that my roommate taught at when I lived in Kenya had a program set up where donors sponsored a child. He worked with the kids as they wrote their letters to their donors. While I agree there is a problem with the way letters can be used, they also serve as thank yous. When we get a gift in the US, it is customary to thank the person via a letter.
    That does not mean it should be a place where a child should detail his or her hardships or call his or her sponsor an angel.
    Hopefully that sort of answers Karen’s question. While only one school can not be taken to be the norm, there are places where the children do write their own letters

  9. I actually work for and manage a charity at grass roots level in Zambia and a small part of my work involves child sponsorship. It is not within many African cultures to say thank you, however it is within the West’s. So here we have a dilemma. Most Westerners, whilst not expecting a thank you do not like to be taken for granted . . and that is how many of them can feel if their generosity is ignored. Donor money is more forthcoming when donors have a connection with the child they are sponsoring.

    Whilst I do not think that anyone should be MADE to write a thank you letter I do feel that a sponsor should be acknowledged by the reciever. Most of these children, so long as you provide the paper and postage, are happy to write. I usually ask for a show of hands from any who WOULD LIKE to write a letter to their sponsor – I do not mention thanks. The letters are very very rarely begging and tell the sponsor about their likes and dislikes and how they are doing at school.

    I have also started pen pal clubs between Zambian and UK schools. The children choose to join these themselves.

    Many people who have not worked at this level also do not realise that honesty can be a problem. In areas where there are one than one sponsorship source children have been found to cheat the system, in other words get sponsorhip from two or more sources.
    Often items donated via the teachers to schools by visitors “disappear for safe keeping” into the teachers’ houses.

    It has been recognised that it is no good giving money directly to the children either. It will often be taken by the extended family and not used for its intended purpose. Now we buy enough their educational needs like pens and books, shoes, school bags etc and hand them out. the School fees are paid directly to the school and a chit issued to spend on uniform. In a rural area such as this most of the things they need are not available and the child could not travel the 120k to the nearest town.

    Whilst I agree that in an ideal world donors would just help because it needs to be done I’m afraid to say that this may never be the case.

  10. Perhaps a good way to show how the fundraising dollars are going to work is by doing a weekly skype or similar video conference with the children who are receiving the fundraising dollars. I think technology can play a huge role in eliminating any skeptics and go a long way to increasing fundraising dollars.

    Owen replies: It would be nice to raise funds without poverty porn if possible.

  11. I think that there’s a legitimate aspect of “exchange” in some of these aid programs. You pay for a well in my village, I send you a thank you note and a photograph of the finished well. I get the well, you get to feel you’ve contributed to someone else’s life. A fair exchange dignifies both parties.

    Where it becomes “porn” is where the exchange becomes something that we wouldn’t tolerate in our own country: money and thank you is a fair exchange, money and inflated gratitude or inflated tales of misery is not a fair exchange. This begins to have the overtones of begging.

    But I think what you have really highlighted is that still for most people in the donor countries, the image of aid is an image of a colonial era charity. Florence Nightengale and Albert Schweitzer. The poor starving masses; the compassionate civilizers. Until we figure out how to change that trope, we’re not going to be able to affect the transactions, though I think that organisations like do a good job of shifting public consciousness.

  12. Um did someone just say that World Vision is a great organisation doing great work?!? I used to work for World Vision in a country in the sex tourism region of Asia and let me tell you they are great. God makes them great because all their staff pray to God every morning to make sure that everything they do is great and God like that so God makes them great. Providing translated Bibles to all the sponsor children and their parents is also a great way to educate them cause if they can learn to pray then God will love them too and make their lives great as well. Yep World Vision is a great organisation.

  13. Owen, you raised very important points, but how about those people who’d really want to have some sort of connection with the people they are sponsoring and are not content with statistics and other forms of hard data (no matter how hard the convincing is being done)? While relying on hard data is good, I feel that there would be people who see this move as reducing success to mere observations and findings, obscuring the personal side of charity.

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Owen Barder

Owen is Senior Fellow and Director for Europe at the Center for Global Development and a Visiting Professor in Practice at the London School of Economics. Owen was a civil servant for a quarter of a century, working in Number 10, the Treasury and the Department for International Development. Owen hosts the Development Drums podcast, and is the author Running for Fitness, the book and website. Owen is on Twitter and