Doing charity – Take on a different kaleidoscope

by | Feb 12, 2024

Disclaimer: All names in this piece have been changed for privacy reasons

There was a long time when I was the patron of one coffee shop in the town. I did not go there because of its location, since the shop was located far from my home. The reason I went was for the long and winding road heading to the shop, on which I seemed to be entitled to dive deep into my thoughts after a long day working, while the warm yellow lights gently embraced my tiring soul. At that time, I was working for an NGO. A seemingly meaningful job, which unexpectedly brought me to never-ending questions and dilemmas.

Abby was my boss. Every one of us may have an Abby, who is much more driven by results than perhaps everyone else. When it comes to something called “results” in development projects, often, some quantitative and qualitative indicators are widely applied. Quantitatively speaking, a development program is considered successful when it “benefits” a large number of people or vulnerable sides such as endangered species. To be more specific, the accomplishments can be shown by the number of vulnerable people receiving the “gifts” from the program or the number of pandas rescued under the influence of the program implementers. While the act of “numbering” such things may sound shallow and even cold, the “story” fills in the rest. Common in the media today are the images and storylines of children, women or other disadvantaged people who “get a better life” after the interventions of some NGOs or international humanitarian organisations. But who are we when we, by ourselves, feel the right to say “They got a better life”? From a more abstract perspective, it is not exaggerated to say that the stories of others, in that case, are utilized as tools for us to move up the career ladder as humanitarian workers.

To conceptualise that scene, a well-known term, “Poverty Porn” was coined, along with other similar terms such as “White Saviors”. These concepts have quite a long history of being researched and debated in the Global North. There is a wide consensus on the definition of that term, which is something that exploits the plight of those who are considered “disadvantaged” for entertainment or emotional engagement in the context of charity, humanitarian or aid efforts.

Do you remember the very first stories or fairy tales you had been told when you were little and your memory had just started to serve you? Have you ever imagined that you were a hero saving the victim from a devil, or a kind princess embracing the poor and elderly in her castle? Now that you are older, these stories have gone, but the media brings them back to you. In some cases, you are the viewers of a hero story, in which the hero wearing the cloak of “charity” successfully and arduously combats the evil of poverty. In other cases, the media turns you into a hero, eradicating the monster of injustice by donating a small amount of money. The downside effects of this phenomenon have already been discussed and are well-known at some points. Among these was the illusion it may instill in the audience’s minds that once the interventions are made, the problems are well resolved like the hero defeats the devil. The actual roots of poverty, injustice and other development issues may be overlooked through the lens of the media.

The phenomenon is not rare since its rise in the 1980s, along with the time of “the golden age of charity” when Western nations directed a significant amount of money and resources to the disadvantaged in third-world countries to expand their political influence. Until now, it has been widely examined and in some humanitarian practices, it has been widely avoided. Public criticism has put organisations and individuals in the development sectors to perform more wisely.

Do you think the “Poverty Porn” monster is easily defeated? A number of contemplations and discussions have been put on the table. The term is no more in a vacuum in the development landscape and it has become noticeable in the press. In some way, “Poverty Porn” makes its way to the world as an infectious virus by evoking the feelings of “We must do something. RIGHT NOW!” among the public. How can we, as separate individuals, help to cease the contagion of that virus? 

You may have come across articles such as this one in The Guardian, which debates how to create more constructive narratives that bring about positive change. It all starts with a shift in mindset – I am not “helping” him or anyone if the act of “helping” implies that a person stands in a higher position than the other. I am just a person sharing a world together with them, and we give to each other every day, in some way.

If you look the right way, you can see that the whole world is a garden.” – Frances Hodgson Burnett once wrote in her wonderful The Secret Garden. We live in a shared world comprising innumerable characters, each one of which embodies a unique beauty. We are here, in this world, to complement the world with our personal substance and support each other to do so, not through the lens of hierarchy but of equality.  

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