Bloggers Unite declared today Unite for Hunger and Hope day. I’m sure many posts are going up to get you to donate, to sign some kind of petition for debt relief, or in the least, just to care. Do you care? And with so many problems plaguing our lives, and the world in general, should you care? It’s not a rhetorical question. I am not sure I can overcome apathy.
To say that one doesn’t care about world hunger or poverty, is like saying one doesn’t care about the environment or basic tenements of human rights. But the images of starving children, whether they are of of the skeletal child brides variety out of India, or children with extended bellies with flies around their faces out of Africa, never really resonated with me.
There are two reasons for this.
Studies have shown that anti-smoking campaigns in schools largely fail if the program is overly reliant on the shocking the test subjects into giving up. If overly graphic images are shown – of black lungs, or the inside of a sufferer of throat cancer, students become so repulsed by the imageries, that they become detached from the message altogether. Similarly, when I see those pitiful pictures of hungry children, their plight seems so fundamentally wretched, my sympathies and emotional triggers are overwhelmed, and I block out the situation altogether.
Secondly, I have come to realize that images of humanitarian crises are constructed by professionals with an agenda. This is not to imply that journalists and photographers that take those pictures have malicious intentions. But it is important to know that behind every still and live image, there are a team of people actively managing our responses. The media create a range of identities so selective and arbitrary – us versus them, victim versus saviour, they effectively create a disaster when they decide to recognize it.
I recognize when there is a food crisis, famine is seen as a lack of progress that results in the deaths of the innocent. I see that famine images are powerful, as they recall the pre-modern existence that most of us in industrialized society have overcome. I have seen enough to confidently say those images feature more women and children. The setups are always the same: they are usually barely clothed, staring passively into the lens, flies fluttering around their faces. If you want to get more technical, I can also tell you that those pictures are always taken from a high angle with no eye contact, so as to reinforce viewer’s sense of power compared with the victims’ apathy and hopelessness.
But I cannot accept the depiction of those people as passive victims needing our pity. It is patronizing, both to those that struggle to survive, and to the intelligence of us on the other side of the screen. And I am repulsed by the ego-tripping call-to-actions offer by exchanging my weekly latte allowance for someone’s future. By depicting hunger, famine, and poverty as humanitarian crisis, they are creating a shroud that hide the political, economic, and social crisis for what they are. It is simplistic, it is reductive, and it is not the solution. “I” am more than a cheque book. And “they” are more than victims of endless disasters.
Yet for decades on end, the west has interacted with Africa (arguably the continent undergoing the most desperate struggle with meaningful development) based on pity. You might say, help is help, what difference does it make? It matters greatly.
There’s a saying: Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. In that case, the west has been feeding Africa (and barely at that), for a long time: culturally, politically, and economically.
Culturally and politically, Africa had been indoctrinated with European Enlightenment principles and their prescribed political paths. Most had little relevance for the indigenous African tribal configurations. To name the countless problems with this approach will take a long time, but the incompatibilities and manifestations of these are apparent: civil unrest, ethnic cleansing, violence, corruption, lawlessness, lack of independent civil society organizations. They lead to one thing: economic stagnation. Surely, development studies and developmental economics deal with a number of regions in the world. But the greatest concentration and the basket cases are in always found in Africa.
Should we just throw our hands up and decide not to care? How do we find another way to relate to this kind of poverty, not through its perpetual state of victimhood, fund-raising and debt-relief themed parties, but something more, dignified?
Here’s an idea. Instead of trying to incite pity, why not facilitate understanding? Like many people, I have not gone to sub-Saharan Africa, but my idea of Africa has been largely shaped through these distorted pictures. So, enough of those manipulative imageries and selectively hyped “humanitarian crisis” for ratings, and enough of those superficial celebrity-endorsed, publicity-seeking displays of global solidarity. What we need is understanding. It is complex, it’s involved, it’s probably frustrating to produce and equally frustrating to read or watch. You want me to care? Give me genuine, and give me the bigger picture.
picture source: *nummerni