According to the Telegram:
The negative portrayal of Africa in the eyes of the British public is undermining efforts to bring an end to hunger on the continent, Oxfam has said.
The aid agency said that three-fifths of people questioned said they have become desensitized to images depicting issues such as hunger, drought and disease …
Over-exposure to negative media and advertising portrayals of Africa and developing countries in other parts of the world was described as “depressing, manipulative and hopeless” by respondents.
Depressing, manipulative, hopeless, and more often than not untrue.
Many years ago I went on a mission trip to Mexico. One of my traveling companions was a young evangelist. On the trip, he spent an inordinate amount of time trying to photograph the skinniest, hungriest, poorest little waif he could find so that he could feature that image in his newsletter for his ministry’s latest fundraising drive.
The thing is, he was just a preacher. He did not run an NGO or charity for hunger or poverty relief, and he was not contributing money or aid in any way to the people we were visiting. Indeed, he was not giving any material help to anyone. The money he was raising was purely for his own salary and expenses.
In a previous life, I worked overseas for an NGO, and visited some relief and development projects in far-flung reaches of the globe, so I think I can speak with some authority here. I have seen much, much more of this kind of thing going on, some with “reputable” charities, than I would ever like to admit. He was not the exception–he was more of the rule.
The truth is, hunger is a problem in many parts of the world. However, the vast majority of people suffering from malnutrition look outwardly pretty healthy–you might not be able to identify the person as being malnourished from a photograph. The horrible photos we so often see for fundraising are the exceptions–children suffering from extreme hunger as a result of famine, natural disaster, or war. However, most of the people helped by NGOs or charities are not this bad off, and have never been this bad off. They are malnourished all the same, and still need help. Their plight is just not that dramatic.
Since aid organizations often cannot tell who is malnourished just by looking, they have to send in assessment teams. These teams weigh and measure children, and compare their physical conditions with those of children who are healthy. By looking at the statistics they have gathered, they can discover if a village or area needs help and should be targeted. In such cases, the most common types of relief include kindergarten and school programs (a school is set up for local kids, where they get clothes and one to three good meals a day), and micro-financing for those wanting to set up businesses (since food is often fairly plentiful, no matter where in the world one lives, more often than not the root cause of hunger is unemployment or low wages). This is vital work that helps millions of people every year. However, it is the kind of thing that does not led itself to fundraising, which is why more often than not the images you see are of children one step away from death.
What can you do, as a potential contributor?
First, you need to find out more about who you are contributing to and how the money will be used. Specifically, you should know how much of the money they raise goes to administrative costs. This information can be discovered easily with just an Internet search. The results can be surprising, as some well-known charities spend the bulk of their money on the staff at home. If a charity is raising money using a natural disaster as an excuse, or with dramatic photos of starving children, it is helpful to know if the money they are raising goes to that specific need, or into the general fund. While I will not name names here, it is an open secret that one of the largest charities in the world nearly always puts the money into its general fund, and thus effectively depends upon disasters in order to raise its own operating expenses. This is fundamentally dishonest. If they lead people to believe that the money is being earmarked for a specific need, then it should be earmarked for that need. Unfortunately, the knowledge of how the money is used once it is received by the charity is often hard to come by. As a rule of thumb, if a charity does not state directly that the money is going for that need, and explain how the money is being used for that need, then I would assume that the money they are raising goes into the general fund, and that only a small part of it is going to that need. Indeed, how much money raised because of the Japan tsunami, for example, actually went to help its victims? Some local Japanese charities did a wonderful job, by all accounts, of helping people. However, some very large international charities used the tsunami prominently in their fundraising, but had little or no presence on the ground. And local charities did not record getting any funding or support from them either. So, where was the money going to?
Second, you need to be realistic about the needs that people have. While it may not seem dramatic to contribute $1.50 a month so that a child can go to school, it certainly helps that child. Our hearts are easily stirred by scenes of serious catastrophes and people in dire need. Yet, sometimes people are not suffering from a serious catastrophe and their need is not so dire, but they still have desperate needs all the same. There are many people in the world without electricity, safe drinking water, money for food, and access to good medical care. Nearly every person in the developed world has these things and more, so there are still needs in the world that can and should be met, and still room for people to help.