Pi News –
The images used by charities and NGOs can be deeply embedded in the memories of supporters, donors, development partners and the ‘beneficiaries’ themselves. These stories color what is commonly known about global poverty and the developing world.
One of the most famous examples was the media and charity coverage of the Ethiopian famine in the early 1980s. The powerful and disturbing images brought the reality of the famine into the lives of millions of Britons and quickly became the currency of the media and NGOs.
But there is a problem with this. The use of such images confirms rather than challenges traditional perceptions of Africa as underdeveloped and incapable of solving its own problems.
In 2021 I bought 17 national newspapers in the UK every weekend for six months. The goal was to explore whether charity advertising has changed in recent years and what kind of characters are featured in fundraising campaigns.
After analyzing a total of 541 fundraising images, one of the key findings is that Africa continues to be overrepresented in charity ads supporting international causes. More than half of the images (56%) focus on African countries. And almost none of these images feature entire family units—instead, they are set in rural areas and depict women and children.
But there is evidence that charities are actively responding to earlier criticisms of using shock tactics, dehumanizing and using images to evoke emotion.
Why is this important?
By constantly focusing on African countries, charities reinforce historical development stereotypes that equate Africa with poverty.
For example, a 2010 report by the Department for International Development found that the UK public saw “developing countries” as synonymous with “Africa”. They associate Africa with poverty and destitution, which mirrors some of the representations used in charity appeals.
The consistent display of these images in various campaigns has reinforced the perception in the British public that there has been virtually no progress in economic and social development across Africa since the 1980s. This contributed to the belief that Africa was a “bottomless pit” in terms of philanthropic efforts and the constant need for foreign aid.
But, in fact, it is not so. Africa is developing rapidly. It has the world’s youngest and fastest-growing population, expected to reach 2.5 billion by the middle of this century.
Nevertheless, my findings suggest that the sector is taking steps to decolonize narratives and counter the use of harmful stereotypes. A 2016 study found that 34% of all charity ads in Britain used “distressing images” that clearly emphasized human suffering.
However, by 2021, only two of the 27 charities that placed ads used distressing images in their fundraising appeals. This represented 11% of all ads because these charities used such images repeatedly during the six-month study period, but it is still a significant drop.
Women and children continued to be the most popular characters in newspaper advertisements. However, compared to similar studies in 2013 and 2016, the use of images of children was significantly reduced. In 2021, 21 percent of charity campaigns featured images of children, down from 42 percent in 2013.
By 2021, 20 percent of all images used in philanthropic campaigns will be of people described as professionals or leaders in developing countries. These people included doctors, nurses and other development workers, who offered a more realistic view of people from Africa.
A number of factors have prompted charities to rethink the potential harm of the representations and stories they use in recent years. One key factor is the need to decolonize narratives by reducing the use of negative stereotypes.
The 2020 Black Lives Matter protests were an important catalyst for charities to quickly adopt or update their ethical image policies. The protests alerted people and organizations to the injustices of colonial history.
The COVID pandemic has also played a significant role in the need for charities to hire local photographers and filmmakers in the countries where they are delivering the programmes. Travel restrictions imposed during the pandemic meant charities could not fly in their staff.
Images can be damaging. Thus, philanthropic communication professionals should strive to diversify the characters they portray.
But the public also has a level of responsibility. We should all be careful not to make assumptions about other countries and cultures when we see charity images in newspaper ads. Photographs may not always present the full picture.