“We have a group of people who are utterly helpless, and only you can save them.”

How does this image make you feel?

How does this image make you feel?

The other contributors and I were discussing Poverty Pornography not too long ago, which according to Matt at Aid Thoughts defines as, “any type of media, be it written, photographed or filmed, which exploits the poor’s condition in order to generate the necessary sympathy for selling newspapers or increasing charitable donations or support for a given cause.”

We began to discuss this topic just as the definition suggests, and found ourselves in a discussion about intervention or engagement in other countries. Please don’t quote me on those two words, as surely they carry some sort of connotation that’ll put more words in my mouth. I found myself, a midst our conversation, arriving at a troubling question: How do we engage with communities outside of the US?

I am constantly being forewarned to avoid “coming in” with a “westward” mindset. So I say, well I’ll just go to find out “their” needs. But NO!  Going to find out “their” needs is assuming that the same metric for quality of life in America can be applied elsewhere. So….okay, people have different lifestyles in different places and may not have the same “needs” as the American may have but how do we as planners get involved? I then said, “Well let’s just go in to observe!” Again NO EDWIN! Going overseas to observe suggests, or indicates, that you are exploiting them for self gain and knowledge. You can already begin to see that at this point in time I apparently have NO CLUE how to travel outside of the country with good intent. Now in regards to poverty pornography, I asked “Well if you do not show poverty, then what will you show?” As planners, we are all to familiar with Jacob Riis’ “How the Other Half Lives” and his “exploitation of the poor” in the industrial New York City. He deliberately exposed the living conditions of the poor! Those photographs then served as armament for a push towards many reforms: Health, Housing, and Sanitation.

Tenement Living Conditions in New York City

Tenement Living Conditions in New York City

Well then the story continues as we then met with our Professor Faranak Miraftab, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Department of Urban & Regional Planning just days after our discussion. She mentioned that when we exploit poverty for monetary gain is when it becomes wrong. I agree. But where does that leave us in the grand scheme of things? Do we not take pictures at all?

Further, how do we engage with other countries, other communities, other people? If we can’t assess their needs because we’ve been indoctrinated with the “American-need,” then how do we assess them? Do we assess them? If I can’t even observe because it suggests personal gain, then how do I stay engaged? At this point it seems that the only persons who can change a community is a citizen of that particular community. So only a Nicaraguan planner can plan for Nicaragua? Only a Bulgarian can plan for Bulgaria?

I pose these questions to you the reader:

How do we engage/intervene with communities outside of the US?

Is there a better way to define what we need to do rather than use “engage” or “intervene?”

Children participate in a silent protest in Mumbai

For more on Poverty Pornography check out this great post:


A few more links:

An excellent short film (by Ben Affleck of all people) which escapes the trappings of development porn. [WR]

We of course shouldn’t confuse poverty porn with the infamous charity porn [WR].



2 thoughts on ““We have a group of people who are utterly helpless, and only you can save them.”

  1. Hi Edwin, I agree that no ‘theory’ has the right to govern how people live in a different geography. I appreciate you bringing up the point how some communities in different parts of the world are portrayed ‘poor’ and ‘miserable’ to raise money with written or print media. I think this creates ‘an image’ of a place for a person living in US or any other develop country; and many times that image is not real – it does not portray the life and cultural vibrancy that any neighborhood has (Also not what actually people want). This leads us to an argument that – are there some universal standards of living? I think ‘No’ but then your argument of ‘A Nicaraguan planning in Nicaragua’ may be paraphrased where you promote the indigenous planning ideas but have flexibility to welcome new ideas from different geographies (This is contextual and case based – ideas can be referred but may or may not be implemented). I think the essence of transnational planning lies in flow of ideas across nations but not in a way that generates preconceived notions (Examples are there in your blog) but as a new cultural opportunity to explore/refer/learn. Following are two examples how ‘an image’ is created through media (I’m mentioning them only for reference not to portray any country or culture) –



  2. Pingback: NGOs, Part II: So, What EXACTLY Can I Do??? | Transnational Planning

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