On Friday, we posed this question to our audience: What do you think of the way poor countries are portrayed by aid groups and the media?
The question came in light of President Donald Trump’s reported description of El Salvador, Haiti and nations in Africa as “shithole countries” last week.
“When well-meaning people describe poverty as a hellhole, we shouldn’t be surprised that people end up thinking of poor places as ‘shitholes,’ ” tweeted Dina Pomerantz, a prominent development economist at the University of Zurich.
More than 100 readers shared their thoughts in our online form and Twitter. One blogger even wrote a reaction blog on the topic, saying it’s unfair to make the connection between Trump’s comments and the way aid groups portray poverty.
Here’s a roundup of responses, which have been edited for length and clarity.
We’re using the same old stereotypes.
“While many NGOs and aid agencies are working to shift the narrative around poverty, many still use the tired old tropes. Images that emphasize poverty and deprivation have a strong effect on the way Westerners view people living in low-income countries. Specifically, these images can cause Americans to perceive Africans broadly as lacking agency and autonomy.”
–Michael Artime, professor of politics and government, Pacific Lutheran University
Asking for donations shapes the way we view poverty.
“Since many aid groups and NGOs operate on the basis of voluntary donations or grants awarded on a basis of demonstrated need, I think that some of their media campaigns to solicit this funding have created many negative, helpless stereotypes of poor and developing countries.
Because they appeal to our emotions and guilt, these stereotypes are easily over-circulated and taken to mind and heart as universal. As the president has helped demonstrate [last] week, this pattern can have damaging consequences for everyone.”
Blaming aid groups is unfair.
“As imperfect as the offerings of the aid industry are, blaming them for a changing political climate where ‘holes’ become a topic for discussion seems unfair. Public and political perceptions are often rooted in long-term myths and short-term political discussion around a country or issue like migration.
At the same time the aid industry has become more self-reflective and self-critical. Nuanced campaigns and advocacy by far outnumber alarmist stories or the denigration of people and places as a fundraising strategy.”
-Tobias Denskus, blogger, Aidnography
Trump views are probably not shaped by charity ads.
“Many NGOs strive for positive portrayal in their advertising. In the U.K. and Australia those that are members of Bond and ACFID [international development coalitions] are strongly encouraged to by codes of conduct. Obviously, crises still have to be called crises and need described as need, but my experience has been that professional NGOs being gratuitous in doing this is the exception, not the norm.
I would posit that most people’s views are shaped by their Facebook feeds and TV news. This is where the bulk of the information the average person receives comes from. I rather suspect President Trump’s views are formed by Fox News, not his frequent reading of advertising material from aid NGOs.”
–Terence Wood, research fellow, development policy center at Australian National University’s Crawford School of Public Policy
We’re using the wrong adjectives.
There’s a problem with positivity too.
The question is besides the point.
“I think that regardless of how aid groups and the media portray poor countries, it should never be an excuse for politicians to be racist jerks.”
We try to tell a balanced story.
“As a communications person working for a small global health NGO, this is a balance I’m constantly grappling with. We need to emphasize that it’s the situation we are addressing that is problematic, not the people. We must portray those who receive our services with dignity, as whole people with whole lives, whole families, whole jobs, hobbies, hopes, challenges and joys. We must not reduce them to just a hopeless victim. We strive to weave all of this throughout our messaging.”
-Amy Donahue, communications, Pivot Works
Thank you to everyone who shared their views on the topic. Keep an eye out for another callout on Goats and Soda next month.
Editor’s note: NPR has decided in this case to spell out the vulgar word that the president reportedly used because it meets our standard for use of offensive language:It is “absolutely integral to the meaning and spirit of the story being told.”