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.
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?”
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].