September 25, 2015

Why we do not need to watch sad-looking children and shabby shoes

Why we do not need to watch sad-looking children and shabby shoes

Something like thirty years ago, Jorgen Lissner – a Danish aid worker – denounced the instrumental use of images of starving children in fundraising campaigns. The article brought attention on how the reality of the Third World was represented to the public in the Western world. Lissner denounced that a sequence of people on the verge of starvation, bloated bellies, pregnant mothers, hopeless parents and sad-looking children covered the front page of newspapers, posters and several TV screens. Those imagines, he said, instrumentally used human bodies without ‘any respect and piety for the person involved’.


The article had a great resonance. The General Assembly of European NGOs adopted a code of conduct, which was further enhanced in 2007. The code commands all agencies to abstain from using images that ‘fuel prejudice’, and to respect core values as human dignity and truthfulness. Two years ago, nevertheless, a formal accusation was brought against Save the Children for the use of unethical imaginary of children in its television campaign. Yet, as documented by John Hilary, the committee observed that NGOs were only encouraged, not duty-bounded, to follow that code of conduct.


Few days ago, the image of the lifeless body of Aylan Kurdi epitomised the cruelty of the ongoing catastrophe at the borders of Western world. The distress caused by the unequivocal humiliation of human life has triggered a remarkable civic mobilization and a virtuous institutional action. Common citizens have jumped in their car to pick up walking migrants from Eastern Europe, politicians have started to deal with the refugee crisis more empathically, and no one now can act as if the issue did not exist. A problem of public order has been translated into a question concerning our moral conduct.


Some questions, nevertheless, lag behind the picture of the three-year-old boy wearing shorts and a bright-red-T-shirt. Do we really need to get there, to the portrait of the dark-haired toddler and to the reconstruction of his escape from the northern Syrian town of Kobani? Do we necessitate this narrative in order to take action in favour of basic civil, economic and political rights?


The depict of Aylan Kurdi fills a slot in a horrific never-ending portfolio of human atrocities. One in which you can find the 1972 emotional picture of the Vietnamese Ki Phúc, Vince Carter’s 1993 starving Sudanese children, the infamous trophy picture in Abu Grahib, together with a handful of pictures portraying emaciated children from developing countries or alleged-symbols of material underdevelopment in remote places around the globe.


Often this mixture of human aberrations and backwardness activates political action; generally, it fuels prejudice. A single narrative that, through the selective use of words and images, transmits a partial representation of facts. In this way, the condition of marginalized and subalterns is encapsulated in an asymmetrical relationship of political solidarity, where the problem-solving rhetoric justifies the implementation of emergency policies. Those policies that mitigate historical responsibilities and that make more heroes than long-term results.


Heroes consume a fundamental respectful egalitarian partnership with the global South and strengthen the idea that the making of an equal world is predominantly dependent on Western achievements. A reified imaginary – according to which distress, repression, pain and starvation draw the profile of the unfortunate ones – gives legitimacy to the ‘legion of world savers’ who case after big fad panacea for the developing world. Successful programs need time and a gradual expansion. Deliberation with local stakeholders establishes the symmetry between cooperating actors; it helps to elaborate contextually mediated criteria of objectivity; eventually, this dialogical interaction makes results with a long-term social impact more probable, both acting upon the community members and on the practitioners in the field.


Let the debate aside, how could we get away with this single-story-narrative and the resulting risk of patronizing the lives of people from the Global South? Once more, efforts have been directed towards the design of well-defined guidelines for NGOs and journalists working with the disadvantaged in developing countries. Talents and strengths must be explicit, they say. Local partners must have a voice. The story of industrious people must find space in the general narrative.


A fairer portrait of men and women in developing countries, nevertheless, must go beyond the reproduction of stories about industrious people. At the same time, it must surpass the emphasis on the virtuous interaction with local stakeholders. The risks, otherwise, are to make personal growth converge with material development and to read heterogeneity and territoriality as an asset, while they should be the norm for NGOs and international institutions. As if this were not enough, by inscribing children, men and women in that worldview, we use their images as functional elements of a general and arbitrary conception of the good.


Without new ideas in mind, it is better to have just a little bit of decency. We avoid to take picture of bedridden elderlies. We try to defend our intimacy and the distinction between the private and the public. We prefer not to take picture of very underprivileged people in our cities. Is this hypocrisy, respect or simply good manners? They are part of our reality, like bloated bellies, starvation, agony and pain are tangible problems in the developing world. Decency will not eradicate poverty, of course. More modestly, it may encourage us to think of the moral prescriptions behind the active work of selecting and presenting imagines and about the costs of making the natural referent fit with ready-to-use meanings.

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About Corrado Fumagalli

Corrado Fumagalli

Corrado Fumagalli is a postdoctoral research fellow in Comparative Political Theory at LUISS. He obtained a PhD in Political Studies from the University of Milan. Corrado graduated from the London School of Economics and the University of Milan with master’s degrees in Political Theory and Philosophy respectively. Corrado has held visiting positions at the Centre for the Study for Developing Societies (New Delhi), the Cluster of Excellence “Normative Orders” at the University of Frankfurt and the Political Science Department at Brown University. Meanwhile, he has been a researcher and an external consultant for EY, Feltrinelli Foundation, IOM-China and the Lokniti-Centre for Comparative Democracy. His research interests include: pluralism, multiculturalism and integration policies, political inclusion, migration policy, the right to stay, skilled migration, brain drain, return and readmission, South-South cooperation and the changing landscape of development assistance.

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