An incomplete truth, the danger of stereotypes

Advertising and Charity websites often show similar, somewhat sorrowful, pictures of their beneficiaries as a way to guilt us into donating more funds. However, this one-sided interpretation of some parts of the world does more harm than good.

There seems to be a consistent theme in the way organisations that are meant to create positive impact portray the “developing” or “third” world. Their advertising, be it on TV or online, is known to us all: a starving, poverty-stricken child, suffering from a disease, desperately dependant on our donation to survive. Not only has the constant flood of these images made us somewhat apathetic to shocking imagery, they also have wider negative consequences.

The use of stereotypical poverty imagery actually ends up harming poverty-stricken communities more than it helps them. Stereotyping in advertising is often criticised because it ends up representing (negatively that is) only certain segments of the population, usually the less fortunate ones.
Not only does the use of clichés cause a feeling of “us and them,” disconnecting donors from beneficiaries, it also guilts people into donating without necessarily sympathising with the recipients. These representations cause short-term compassion but don’t build sustainable synergy between donors (developed world) and recipients (developing world).

To me, these stereotypical representations induce the perception that funding recipients and the “third world” are somewhat “beneath” us. Research, backing my claims, has shown that we are socially inclined to attach certain negative characteristics to poor people, i.e. laziness and lack of intelligence. These perceptions are unconsciously associated with not only the people but that culture as a whole.

In her TED talk The Danger of a Single Story, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie states: “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” Her quote perfectly explains what consistently happens in the third sector. The persisting poverty-stricken illustration of developing countries only maintains existing stereotypes and subconsciously sustains the idea that we are superior.

I myself have never been to Uganda, for example, so the perception I have of it is made up of images I see on news media and numerous charity websites I've visited.  If I were to accept the depictions presented to me, I would think that the entire continent is filled with depraved, uneducated people that constantly suffer from drought and starvation.

This is only part of the story of what developing countries are like. However, this view has come to represent an entire sector. The danger with this limited knowledge of these places is that it also limits our understanding of the people and the culture. The images that many organisations choose to represent their recipients are an incomplete view of these parts of the world. I strongly believe that if we were to change these perceptions, we will be able to make the third sector more efficient and effective on an international level.

Check out what these "African men" from MamaHope have to say about this: African Men. Hollywood Stereotypes.

More Stories