Faces of poverty

Charities often use racial images that can alter the way we understand global poverty.
December 12, 2012

With an increasing campaign on abject poverty around the world, images of starving African children have become symbolic faces of global poverty. One can’t avoid them on posters, cards, popular magazines, newspapers, charity websites and celebrity highlights, among others.

In September 2000, the U.N. declared a groundbreaking Millennium Declaration to eradicate “abject and dehumanizing conditions of extreme poverty, to which more than a billion [people] are currently subjected.” Following this declaration, the war on global poverty has become popular, especially with a number of Hollywood celebrities visiting poor African countries and helping impoverished children. Celebrities like Madonna, Angelina Jolie and U2’s Bono have taken active roles in global poverty reduction and worked with different organizations.

Though the campaign on poverty has leveled significant awareness in the past 10 years, tackling global poverty through the images of impoverished African children still remains an ineffective approach. They emphasize the donation rather than policy-oriented solutions. Throughout the campaign on poverty, Africa has become a battleground with famous images of helpless children being used to reflect global poverty.

If one visits charity websites, such as Oxfam, the UK-based organization that has been leading a global campaign on poverty, there is an overwhelming amount of images that focus on African children as a symbolic representation of global poverty. This approach distorts the real problems of global poverty and portrays the problem of poverty as a racially charged issue. These images raise the problems of African people on a pedestal, separate from those of other racial and ethnic backgrounds. Clearly poverty is not unique to Africa. It is a global problem that needs global solutions.

Hence, global poverty cannot be addressed by the images of starving African children, which have become synonymous with Western charity. Charity campaigns need to push people to play active roles in understanding complex problems rather than simplifying the issues.

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