Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Starving Children in Africa

There’s something within me that breaks every time I see a picture a starving African child. It’s normal, I guess, to feel guilt, shame, shock, horror, etc... when I see such pictures. That’s the typical reaction among us ‘decent’ White folk.

This feeling, though, has to be reconciled with the other feelings I feel when I typically see these pictures - disgust and anger towards people or organizations who exploit the stereotype or the image, those who use it as a means to an end.

I’m truly not sure about how to process this reaction and synthesize it all into a coherent response. The images depict an actuality – people die from starvation. There is little doubt of this. And yet there is something more than the picture, something sinister. Images carry meaning beyond what is explicitly presented. Susanne Langer (an art philosopher) said, “A symbol is understood when we conceive the idea it presents.” Much like the symbol of a cross, for example, can mean many things to different people (faith, Christianity, salvation, oppression, death, life), the image of a starving child is more than ‘the truth’. It has come to represent many things: the collective guilt/responsibility/shame of the affluent Western nations (I feel sorry for them), the wealth of the West (you see pictures of people who are obviously not you), the pride/elevation of the West (we have the resources to help), etc...

Not only does the image no longer simply represent starving children around the world (perhaps it once did, meanings change with time), but it has been co-opted by people and agencies as a tool of manipulation and, sometimes, even deceit. In the book, “Road to Hell” a former aid worker documents how the NGO Save the Children markets child sponsorship to the masses, uses false advertising, and spends a large percentage of their budget figuring out how to do it. It’s wilful manipulation.

They know the power of the image, it’s not accidental misuse. A quote I just took off of the World Vision website calls for donations: It would be shameful to wait to see images of starving children stalked by vultures before taking action.

We can even be threatened with more images, it appears. Whatever the case, it works. Money is spent on research to show this, ad agencies or directors are hired, million dollar campaigns initiated. I can accept that not all agencies are perhaps as wilful in their manipulation but it is manipulation nonetheless.

Now, I understand the argument that goes something like this: We all “know” that children are starving and yet we go about our Western lives, purchasing $5 lattes, $50 meals, $150 shoes, etc... The pictures don’t give us any new information but rather bring home what it is truly like to be starving, or at least what it truly looks like to be starving.

And the truly sad thing in all of this, beyond the purposeful exploitation of emotions, beyond our Western-centric approach, is that there’s truth in this argument. Not in the fact that it is inherently true – I don’t think seeing pictures makes us any more aware of what it’s really like to starve or be around starving people (much like a 30hr famine doesn’t really show you how starving people feel). It’s true in that it does prompt response. The whole grand scheme of exploitation depends on you and me, on our feeling guilty enough to send money, to respond in the right way. A recent quote from Geez magazine has an NGO advertising agent say, “Call it McMarketing; it’s all about supply and demand. You want it I need you. I package it. You buy it. I send you another picture for your fridge that reminds you how good you are. I’m happy to oblige....just remember, I’m only the messenger, and I know how you like it.” Images of starving African children work. Studies show it. People have jobs as advertising directors (and salaries paid by your donations) to manipulate images and words in such a way to provoke a response. Not an intellectual response but an emotional one.

And this is the final thing that frustrates me. The only appropriate response to such an advertising campaign, we are told, is to donate money. $40 feeds a child for a month, $100 sends him to school, $50 buys a sheep. Donate now! This approach ignores why the children (and the rest of the people!) are starving. It ignores the globalization of trade, the subsidies paid to Western farmers to ensure we can buy sugar, bread, coffee, etc... for cheaper prices, the increased costs of production because of the introduction of Western fertilizers and pesticides. It ignores the exploitation of the disadvantaged. It ignores the system in favour of treating the symptoms. For however much Bono campaigns for debt relief, for however much organizations raise for disaster relief or fresh water (and it’s not to say that these aren’t good things) – for however much we donate – it ignores the bigger issues.

Not only that, our donations seem to exempt us from having to confront these issues; it assuages our guilt enough to help us continue with what we were doing before. We need to stop blindly submitting to the propaganda (harsh word, I know) and actively question the systems that we are a part of, the system of domination and exploitation, the systems that lead to people starving. But this system of images and donations stupefies us, silences us, and renders us immobile. Our donations are so insignificant in the scheme of things. Governments give more than what is privately donated through NGOs. Remittances (relatives sending money back home) bring more money into Third World nations than Western governments. Trade brings in even more than this. This is my frustration: the images are part of a system that satisfies us with cheap, easy answers without solving anything.

These issues are huge; the books written about them could fill a library and a blog post can’t even begin to summarize them (even if it is a long one like this one!). An image is never just the picture, never just the revealing of a moment of time, never just what you see. It can’t reveal everything (it’s limiting) and yet it has endless possibilities through symbolization. It’s powerful.

I was at church the other night and we were shown a video. The background narrative was a sermon on taking action, on going into the nations. The images, every single one of them, were of African children. It carefully placed images of starving children at the right times (to make a point about how bad things were) and juxtaposed them with pictures of happy, smiling African children (to make a point about how good things could be).

People starve the world over. Gypsies in East Europe. Elderly in Latin America. Mothers in Africa. Children in North Korea. And yet, they are not shown. They don’t carry the same weight, the same meaning, as African children. We all (and please note, I certainly include myself in this) accept this barrage of images as the norm, accepting guilt and pity as the best we can do. The system continues on. Pictures flood the TV. Every week more mailings arrive with pleas for aid. The pictures are like currency, you can bank on it. What are we going to do?


Daddio said...

Well, I did get through reading this long one, and what do we do? The major cause for starvation among people in developing countries appears to be political instability and corruption - so maybe we should sponsor revolutions? The real villians are not the NGO's, but those who keep raping their own country and their own people. Really though, caring for those in need - regardless of where they live - is important not only for helping them, but also to keep us from becoming completely desensitized to the needs of others.

Eric said...

And what are the major causes of political instability and corruption?

Avinash said...

Why do they keep producing more children in Africa, if they can't afford to feed the ones they already have?

Eric said...

Avinash: There are a hundred reasons why children starve in Africa but few of them have to do with parents choosing to produce more children willfully knowing that they can't feed them.

From wars which destroy crops, from trade policies that devalue crops, from taxes that unfairly burden the poor, from HIV/AIDS which orphans children and leaves parents unable to work to support their children, from pests and wildlife destroying crops... The list goes on. To portray African parents as somehow negligent in producing children is to ignore that children are far more valued in many African cultures than they are here and few parents would choose to put their children in situations where their children would starve.

"Which of you, if his son asks for bread will give him a stone?"

Naveen said...

Very touching article. I feel ashamed of working in development sector and I have myself gathered some pictures for fundraising at an NGO at one point of my career (although they were not the pictures of starving children). I really feel ashamed working in this poverty pornography.

Can I do something about it? May be yes or May be no. But I cannot surely do it alone. The entire system involving multi stakeholders and millions of people should understand this reality until then we should start somewhere ... may be with us and may be right now.

Eric said...

Naveen: It always starts with every individual as we are the ones who justify and allow certain systems to flourish. From aid workers and major donors to child sponsors and people who donate to disaster relief, we are all implicated within these systems.

laura said...

I think its cruel to bring another human into the world if you can't afford to feed it. When will this end. These women need to be given birth control. I am sick and tired of being made to feel guilty because of this. I didn't cause this. Are these people that stupid that they don't know right from wrong. They are the ones causing this.