Street Team '08: The World Through Development Pornography

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This was written for the Choose Or Lose Street Team '08:

Picture from Reuters.

Matchstick thin limbs, swollen bellies, sunken eyes, buzzing flies, if you know what I'm talking about, chances are you are familiar with development pornography.  It's a term critics use for some of the shocking images aid organizations exploit to encourage donations.  These are images usually taken by "first world", white, photographers to portray "third world" problems.  In fact, chances are these are the first images that pop up in your mind when you think of the entire continent of Africa. 

It's part of a larger problem that I'm very familiar with.  Though I report from Massachusetts for the Street Team, I was born and raised in Guatemala, a country that suffers from the worst malnutrition indicators in Latin America.  Coming from that country, I find that most people I interact with on a daily basis have no concept of what it means to be an average person on this earth.  About half of the world's population lives on less than $2 a day, but if you're reading this, it's going to be very difficult to conceptualize what that means.  For example, way back in 2005, I wrote this for an Opinion Focus in the Harvard Crimson about Poverty about the simple ability to read and write:
There are countless statistics which convey the large proportion of humanity that lives in an extreme poverty... Statistics, however, remove poverty from the conceptual argument. For example, readers of this very page generally view the illiteracy that is characteristic of extreme poverty as the inability of individuals to read, when, in fact, the same is true for the inability of literate individuals to comprehend what it means not to be able to read. The challenge for readers of this page is not bringing others to understand these words, but understanding the lives of people who live without them.
Kyle de Beausset - The Harvard Crimson (3 October 2005)

Sam Vaghar, 21, a soon-to-be graduate of Brandeis University, has not only taken the time to conceptualize the reality of what it means to live on under $2 a day, he is leading youth across the United States to change that reality.   Sam Vaghar is the co-founder and Executive Director of the Millenium Campus Network (MCN), a collection of university student groups committed to promoting "sustainable international development in the spirit of the U.N. Millennium Development Goals."  MCN recently drew national media attention after organizing a conference that drew luminaries like Grammy-winner John Legend, and and former presidential candidate John Edwards, together with 1700 students from across the U.S. to discuss international development. 

Vaghar was born in England, but has been a resident of Newton, Massachusetts, for the last 15 years, and is a dual citizen.  I interviewed Vaghar recently about his feelings on extreme poverty and how it is covered in the media.  Vaghar was extremely humble and didn't purport to have all the answers, but he provided a lot of great insight, some of which I'm going to include in the quotes below:

Extreme poverty is something that a billion people are facing…I think part of the problem is that we don’t talk about extreme poverty enough in the media.  I mean how many times do you hear global poverty, those words together, in the media? Hardly ever. Extreme poverty? Hardly ever… The words just aren’t brought up enough.  The stories just aren’t covered enough.   And when they are, it’s often covering emergency crises.  You’ll see things on hurricanes or tsunamis, and that’s tragic.  It’s terrible and we need to respond.  But we also need to respond to daily struggle.  And also you gotta look at the negatives, the crises, but also the positives.  You can’t just say, “All these people are victims, they’re struggling.”  Because at the same time, people are coming with creative ways to pull themselves out of extreme poverty, and we need to support those as well.

I think Vaghar hits the nail right on the head here about how the media should be covering the globe.  First of all the media needs to focus on it a lot more.  Half the world lives on under $2 a day, and one billion people live on under $1 a day, but that reality is hardly ever reflected in U.S. media.  Second of all, it needs to be covered in an empowering way from the perspective of "people who are poor", Vaghar's prefered terminology.

Vaghar elaborates here:

You can’t focus on people in the Global North. You need to focus on the people in the Global South.  Because the solutions aren’t going to come from people in the Global North, nearly as often as from people from the Global South who are experiencing and seeing it every day.  That’s the reality.  And I think we fool ourselves to think that people in the Global North have all these answers.  We don’t.  We’re not there.  We’re not experiencing it.  So we really need to be partners that work in support.

I don't think I can say it better.  I even like the terms he used: Global South and Global North.  Although I must say my favorite term to describe the Global South, or what people usually know as the "Third World" or the "Developing World", is the Majority World.

The Majority World is something that youth increasingly care about, and Vaghar echoes this sentiment.  This is what Vaghar has to say about youth's increasing interest in the Majority World.  Before I quote him I must say though that he was careful to say, "It's hard for me to assess what people are thinking...I haven't sat down and interviewed hundreds of students."
 
If you’re talking about activist students, probably there’s more students that know about the genocide in Darfur, than know about local politicians.  If you talk about national politicians, Obama, Clinton, McCain, I think completely the opposite.

Local politics, maybe, interests a very select few students…Part of it is, students are looking and thinking, “What can I do? How can I make a difference?… And when you’re looking at a genocide in Darfur and hundreds of thousands of people killed and millions displaced, and you think, “This is an urgency and we need to act on it,” versus local politics, which there might be some important legislation, but maybe some of it’s fixing potholes in the road.  You put the two together and you say, “Which one would I’d rather focus on?”…To be real, for a lot of us, it’s a no brainer.

Youth care about these issues and the media should cover it more.  In fact, when the Millennium Campus Network organized their amazing conference last month, the national media ended up focusing on what Edwards had to say about the Presidential race more than they did on the fact that 1700 youth were gathering from across the nation to discuss and act on the problems facing the world.  I wrote it about it, just a little while ago. 

Rather than just bash the media, though, I thought I'd point to something they did right. I was extremely happy when I came across a new ABC World News series entitled, "21 and the World Is Yours".  It examines the lives of four 21-year-olds, people my age, picked specifically out of the middle class of their own respective countries around the world: India, Egypt, Kenya, and China.  It's a series directed at us, young people, and they've even set up a Facebook Page where you can interact with the people their four interviewees.

As is generally the case, four broadcasts on ABC World News is probably not enough to change concepts already ingrained in so many minds, but it least these broadcasts were done right.  It's important to point that out.   The features on Nisha Menta, from India, and Wang Qian, from China, give good insight into the rise of the two giants that the media has become obsessed with. 

I was most impressed by the report on Mwai Ngugi from Kenya.  It discusses poverty very frankly, and even relies on a little bit of it's own development pornography.  But this story of poverty is shown through Ngugi, who voice is empowered by the format of these news features.  The report also provides a very sobering perspective on what it means to be middle class in Kenya.  The following paragraph describes Ngugi's living conditions:

The house has electricity, but there is no running water or modern kitchen. In the main room, the family watches television and sometimes a pirated DVD. There is a desktop computer where Mwai works on the weekly church bulletin, but there is no Internet or satellite television. Mwai's most cherished possession is his cell phone and the football posters in his room...By Kenyan cultural tradition, you become a man after you are circumcised at 14 years old. Then, the parents must provide a room for the new initiate outside of the main house. Mwai has a room just off the kitchen, which he keeps meticulously clean. His bed is made, his clothes folded, his shoes lined up in a row.
Clark Bentson - ABC News (21 April 2008)

This goes back to perspective.  To most U.S. citizens, Ngugi would probably seem poor.  By global standards, however, Ngugi is very privileged. 

What I find most admirable about Ngugi, is that even in a country with very little opportunity he has found ways to make a living off of making his country a better place, something that is hard U.S. college graduates to find out how to do.  I can't tell you how many graduating seniors I know that have no idea what they're going to do after they graduate.  Ngugi knows what he wants to do, he wants to be an actor, and his making a country a better place with it.

Ngugi works for Repacted, where he works to educate his fellow Kenyans through theater on issues like drug use, and HIV/AIDS.  When ethnic violence recently struck his country, Ngugi made a point of volunteering to help members of his rival ethnicity in camps for displaced people.  This is the type of reporting on countries like Kenya that empowers at the same time that it educates us about the issues.

Not only that but the ABC series was about youth, presented to youth, about the issues that youth like Sam Vaghar, myself, and 1700 others that were able to make it to Massachusetts, for the Millennium Campus Conference care about.  With more reports like this, the Privileged World might actually come closer to understanding what it means to live in the Majority World, and might be inspired to act and change it. 

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6 Comments

barb said:

What a timely post! I came in this morning to find someone had left a book on my desk by the Initiative for Policy Dialogue (founded by Joseph Stiglitz) called Covering Labor: A Reporter's Guide to Worker's Rights in a Global Economy. It basically argues that in the era of neoliberal economic globalization where HALF of the world's people live at or below the $2/day poverty line, labor rights are human rights and the role of the media is profoundly important in shaping the terms of the debate and being the catalyst for change.

Apparently the IPE has several guides for journalists, possibly available here on their website, www.journalismtraining.net

kyledeb Author Profile Page said:

These are exactly the connections that we need people to start making. Migrant rights are human rights are workers' rights. Thanks for reading this barb. We'll see what people think about it.

symsess said:

This post so effectively demonstrated your (and our) desire to actually help others. It exemplifies what I meant in my compliment.

One of the most difficult challenges we face not only in the local struggle of migrants, but the global struggle of so many others is empathy. How can you promote a U.S. understanding of what it's like to live on $2 a day? Personally I don't know, but to see young people such as yourself and Sam embracing these issues I know we have a chance.

There is a saying that “there are only seven meals between civilization and anarchy.” The riots and social unrest around the world bear witness to this saying.

The severity of the global food crisis is undeniable. Prices of major commodities have increased substantially over the last three years, and especially, in the last few months.

According to the World Bank, about 100 million people might be thrown back into the ranks of the poor because of these price rises. There have been riots in a number of countries, and the Bank has identified 33 as especially vulnerable.

How do we face the global food crisis..??

kyledeb Author Profile Page said:

Symsess,

Thanks for your comment. Part of my answer to your question about making U.S. citizens understand is this blog. Global inequity has always been the issue that I hold closest to my heart, but a conclusion I came to sometime ago is, how do you get a U.S. citizen to care about someone starving halfway across the world, when they can't even show compassion for the migrants that represent them in their own communities.

Migrants are international heroes, and in many cases they are pulling up their poverty stricken communities by their boot straps. A war on migrants is a war on the majority world. Getting people to have compassion for migrants is the first step in creating a global community instead of a subset of competing nations.

kyledeb Author Profile Page said:

Ayesha,

Thanks for stopping by at Citizen Orange. It's precisely voices like yours that we need to start involving in the migration debate. Global activists that care about the genocide in Darfur, the military junta in Burma, Freeing Tibet, and the global food crisis need to start putting migrants on their agenda of global issues to resolve.

How do we solve the global food crisis this year? It's too late now, food aid is the only solution. How do we solve it in the future, well, I'll tell you the U.S. took a step in the wrong direction with the latest Farm Bill. It's U.S. subsidies for agricultural and lately for corn ethanol that is pushing food prices up and starving the world.

Unfortunately we don't have the power in the U.S. to do anything about it. U.S. citizens just don't feel for people in other countries enough. That's why we need to keep fight the migrant fight. A coalition of migrant voters and their allies is the only thing that can put the world on the right track.

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This page contains a single entry by kyledeb published on May 20, 2008 12:16 PM.

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