There used to be a poster at a bus stop near my apartment that featured a photo of a disfigured child and urged you to donate. While the child no doubt needed help, I have to wonder how many people saw the photo and actually felt moved to take out their credit card and call the number listed. For most people, the image was likely too exotic or too tragic, even, to seem real. Additionally, there seemed to me a certain level of manipulation on behalf of the charity; instead of making a case or explaining things, it felt like they were trying to guilt the viewer into wanting to help. Some people have called this kind of image “poverty porn”. The blog Aid Thoughts describes it well, as reducing those in need to “caricature.” The blog notes that a picture of children with distended bellies, for example, “removes all respect for their own agency and cultivates a culture of paternalism.”
Last week, I came across a piece by Keshet Bachan that reminded me of the the bus stop poster. Bachan was appalled at the sexualization of girls by a charity whose work is very similar to More than Me’s, namely providing scholarships and school supplies. Bachan writes that, “perpetuating a story that disempowers your constituency, commodifies them, objectifies them and sells them to the highest bidder in the name of ‘charity’ is beyond the pale.” She objects to the idea that girls should be portrayed as either potential students or potential prostitutes.
Bachan concludes with, “I hope other campaigns that use disempowering dichotomies (‘you’re either poor and pregnant, or you get a loan and buy a cow’…) find a way of creating a more nuanced story without losing its desired effect [of gaining donations].”
I’d like to think More than Me avoids the “disempowering dichotomy” Bachan warns against. Yes, girls on the street in Liberia are vulnerable, have few prospects, and almost no economic mobility. Yes, many of them want to go to school and by not going to school the possibility of becoming a prostitute is high. However, as Katie wrote in her post about Abigail, these children are happy. Like people everywhere, they make the most of their situation and many of them, including the children who qualify for scholarships, dream of something more, but appreciate what they have. If they don’t go to school they might sell goods in the market or they might not, but the role of education in the grand scheme of rebuilding Liberia is certainly undeniable. Children who are able to go to school will be able to actively work in the rebuilding process.
The images of More than Me scholarship recipients and the children who hope to receive scholarships say more than any blog. Instead of grossly depressing depictions of life in West Point, almost every photo More than Me posts is exploding with youthful energy. In the background of many photos lie the remains of war and neglect, but the smiles of these kids tells a bigger story, a different story, one that has a bright future.Tweet