The death of the starving child
This article was published in Living Ethics: issue 85 spring 2011
We've all seen the phot of the vulture loitering near the small African child hunched and emaciated in the foreground. It became the defining image of the last famine to sweep the Horn of Africa in 1993 and was taken by troubled South African photographer Kevin Carter.
It’s a difficult image to look at. The child is curled up, appearing helpless as the vulture looms and seemingly waiting for the inevitable.
In the 1970s the defining images of international poverty often focused on Mother Theresa. I have one which shows a small, presumably Indian boy sitting listlessly as he is fed by the famous nun in her familiar white robes and habit.
Both images are uncomfortable for aid agencies today, which tend to show happy children, often looking well fed and even playing in or drinking from clean running water. Working in the aid sector for the best part of fifteen years, I have witnessed many changes to how the so called ‘beneficiaries’ of aid are depicted.
We all know that news organisations often go for the most shocking images. However, the images that aid agencies tend to use today are not the ones of abject poverty and need that we see in our work. Instead, the preferred images strive to illustrate the dignity and humanity of the people in them.
The obvious question is: do these images really convey the actual needs of the person or the community? This ambiguity creates a tension that exists in most aid organisations, particularly between the fundraisers who want to raise more money by clearly illustrating the need, and the program teams who want to represent the impacts that their programs are having within those communities.
Marketers know that you need to convey an emotional connection if you want to encourage someone to act. Yet unlike advertising agencies, aid organisations aren’t selling ‘things’. We are attempting to tread a much trickier line.
Of course we rely on donations so we can scale up our response and in so doing, hopefully save more lives. We also are very aware that the current issue for which we are fundraising, regardless of how extreme the situation, will not be the last emergency or call to action.
Most development organisations have years of experience in dealing with disasters. As we have been shown again and again, there is likely to be another crisis in the very near future. That’s why the aid agency marketing is, in the main, targeted not just at encouraging donations to one emergency.
Instead, it attempts to bring supporters and potential supporters on a journey where they can discover what the core elements of successful poverty alleviation programs are. So while images of a starving African child may be better for marketing, in the long run they undermine our efforts to actually show what makes development work.
To this end, which images are most compelling? The young Sudanese girl in the Kevin Carter photo never had a name. It’s easy to understand why. Approaching a starving child to ask her name and how she got to be there would indeed be a complicated transaction—on many levels. It is telling that Carter in his suicide note just a year later stated:
I am haunted by the vivid memories … of starving or wounded children.
Recently we have seen more starving African children on our television screens. We have been overwhelmed by incredible stories of death and also of survival and hope. Families leaving their land when their last animals die. Entire families, often numbering six and seven as they set out faced with the unthinkable reality of having
to leave children and loved ones beside on the road as they became too weak to go on. Yet in making this fateful decision, they know they must go on, or also perish. The families diminish in number but persevere to reach a refugee camp like Dadaab, built for 90,000 in the 1990s and now home to more than 400,000.
The abject horror of such stories is impossible to convey. If we are raising money for hunger relief, is it right to show starving children or instead, should we use images of children who are well fed and whose names we know? Do these images of ravaged children inspire us to take action to support these vulnerable people—or do
they merely desensitise us to their plight?
In a previous job I remember being roundly castigated for daring to place a picture of a young child from East Timor on the front of an annual report. The photo was typical of the non-government aid sector and showed a young, smiling boy, his two dark, sparkling eyes fixed firmly on the camera to promote the maximum emotional connection with the viewer. “Why do we have to show these people with such horrible teeth?” challenged a colleague.
Although it was true the boy did have significant dental problems, I was bemused by the reproach. In a country where reaching the age of five is an achievement and this child had likely never seen inside a medical clinic, let alone met a dentist, it appeared a misguided criticism.
Choosing which images to use is always fraught. There is no absolute or correct answer. At UNICEF we always strive to maintain the dignity of the individual in the image. In an emergency, we will seek also to illustrate the need. Permission is always sought from subjects and also checked with the parent or guardian if the image is
of a child. When permission is not given, the image won’t be used.
This interaction assists in maintaining people’s dignity and also builds rapport, crucial for getting just the right image. We of course talk to people when we take their images and explain how they will be used. Though it must be said, when we are working with individuals from different language groups or communities who may
not have a lot of exposure to the world’s media, we cannot always be certain that the message we are attempting to convey is fully grasped.
Yet we do not work alone. The symbiotic nature of aid agencies and media in promoting emergencies is crucial to engendering a public response.
Last year UNICEF responded to over 270 crises. Barely a handful of these tragedies even made the news in Australia. Without significant media coverage it is almost impossible for most aid agencies to marshal significant public support.
Almost every interview I have conducted on the current crisis in East Africa where 13 million people are dramatically affected and almost one million are in real danger of death, I have been asked about compassion fatigue. This question is always is preceded by: “Australians are renowned for their generosity, but …”
It’s true that we are known to be generous. Last year the Gallup Giving Index, which examines personal giving, volunteering and helping a stranger and measures generosity around the world, found Australia and New Zealand the two most generous countries. It’s incongruous then to hear one of Australia’s most high profile philanthropists, Dick Smith, saying that 2000 millionaires in Australia last year gave not one dollar to charitable organisations. We do know that in the latest figures, more than one million Australians donated more than $800 million to international aid and development activities.
By any stretch that is an enormous amount, yet the amount given has stayed relatively stable since falling from a peak of over $1 billion in private giving following the Asian tsunami. The number of people who are giving may be underestimated too, as often one person in a household is in charge of the cheque book. Yet the number of people giving has continued to increase by around 4% year on year.
And this increased support, at least in part delivered by a more mature approach in telling our story, is achieving results. Reducing the number of children under five who die every day from 36,000 in 1990 to 21,000 today is a massive success. However, 21,000 children dying every single day from poverty is nothing short of a tragedy. That number of deaths equates to the populations of both Melbourne and Sydney. It’s a shocking figure that does not attract the same media attention a famine or a tsunami does.
Tackling poverty is not a sprint. It is going to take many more years of dedicated effort. We are improving our practices and we are gaining momentum. However, it’s most certainly in all our interests that we continue to do it in a manner which is both ethical and sustainable.