Barefoot and begging – Pity communications do everyone a disservice

This blog was co-authored by Dela Anderson, Campaigns and Communications Officer and Ruthie Walters, Campaigns Coordinator for RESULTS UK.

“Without providing information about the factors driving the problems depicted, development communications both end up marking the global South as a site of rootless, causeless, unavoidable suffering, and tire audiences in the global North who are confused as to why, after so much aid has been given and donations have been solicited, not much has seemingly changed.” Claire Bracegirdle via AfricaIsACountry

The UK Government is abandoning its legal commitment to spend 0.7% of our national income on Overseas Development Assistance (ODA, commonly referred to as aid), cutting £4.5 billion from the budget. Reducing ODA at a time when countries all over the world are dealing with the COVID-19 crisis and poverty is rising worldwide is an injustice – but we shouldn’t rely on outdated and offensive stereotypes to get this point across.

Last month, the Times published a cartoon (pictured below) called ‘Aid Drop’ in which  a group of dark-skinned, barefoot and forlorn looking children stand around with empty plates outstretched. The cartoon was posted on social media and circulated by prominent voices in the UK aid sector. At the centre of the image lies an open wooden box, emblazoned with the ‘UK Aid’ logo. It’s empty but for a note that reads “We’ve got a lot on our plate right now, Rishi.” Presumably these children are would-be recipients of a food parcel delivery that will no longer arrive. 

Cartoon called ‘Aid Drop’ in which a group of dark-skinned, barefoot and forlorn looking children stand around with empty plates outstretched. At the centre of the image lies an open wooden box, emblazoned with the ‘UK Aid’ logo. It’s empty but for a note that reads “We’ve got a lot on our plate right now, Rishi.”
‘Aid Drop’ by Morten Morland, The Times, 2021

Cutting the ODA budget is a difficult concept to bring to life in one eye-catching image, so maybe the cartoonist can be forgiven for trying. But part of the reason the public and media perceive ODA as ‘aid’ – and solely about delivering food or medicine supplies is because that’s often how the so-called international development sector chooses to visualise it. It only takes a Google search for “international aid” and a scan through charity websites to see that this comic is based on imagery that donors and partners are also guilty of using themselves. Those of us who work and advocate for international development, and anyone who believes in global justice, must do a better job of communicating what ODA actually is, and we certainly have a responsibility to call out the reproduction and reinforcement of offensive stereotypes about the people in lower- and middle-income countries who we advocate for and with. 

So why are images like these problematic?

“Among your characters you must always include The Starving African, who wanders the refugee camp nearly naked, and waits for the benevolence of the West. Her children have flies on their eyelids and pot bellies, and her breasts are flat and empty. She must look utterly helpless. She can have no past, no history; such diversions ruin the dramatic moment” Binyavanga Wainaina, How to write about Africa

Since cuts to humanitarian ODA in Syria and Yemen have been covered a lot in the media, we can assume the cartoon is a depiction of somewhere in the Middle East. But without any context, like many other imagery used in the context of ODA; this cartoon does just that – relies on assumptions. These assumptions are often formed from centuries of portrayals echoing the above quote. The economic status of the characters depicted in the cartoon is unknown, but their impoverishment and ‘foreign’-ness is hinted at through the all-too-common and lazy combination of being barefoot, wide eyed and begging. Their identity is reduced only to poverty, hunger and misery, and the implication is that they are merely waiting for assistance from the UK. This is patronising and frames ODA as paternalistic, with the UK being a ‘saviour’, swooping in to help. While a comic like this succeeds in making the Government’s decision to cut ODA seem cruel and selfish, it exaggerates the role of western ‘saviours’.

Depicting people like this living in lower- and middle-income countries (sometimes called formerly colonised countries) builds on tropes that are rooted in colonialism and go back centuries. ODA has changed a lot since its colonial origins, (admittedly, it hasn’t come far enough), but the depictions of people of colour living in poverty remain stuck in the past. This is at best lazy, and at worst, racist, for stripping people of colour experiencing poverty of their identities and humanity. This portrayal is incompatible with the reality that people everywhere have autonomy, resourcefulness and expertise, and they have agency in managing their own situations. It also overlooks the complex structures of ODA organisations and programmes, and the planning and research that goes into developing and delivering context specific, people-centred ODA-funded programmes.

The cartoon’s suggestion that ODA is all about dropping off charitable parcels of food to people affected by famine misrepresents the purpose of it. Data on how the UK’s ODA budget is spent shows that disaster relief, which we assume is happening in the cartoon, receives less money, at £345.5 million, compared to other sectors such as health (£885.4 million) and banking and financial services (£538.1 million). And emergency food ODA, at £73.7 million, only represents a fraction of the disaster relief budget. When ODA is done well, it’s not just short-term support like emergency food parcels, but works towards long-term changes such as supporting countries to ensure there is a sustainable plan for feeding and nourishing everyone. Even at its best though, ODA ultimately plays a small part in what is needed to end poverty for good. We should strive to communicate the impact of the cuts to ODA while also articulating that there are deeper reasons why children are going hungry in Syria. By continuing to produce communications like this comic, well-meaning organisations and media outlets are reinforcing the narrow public perceptions of what aid sets out to do, and can do.

Do these images even work?

“By simply adjusting the way the sector frames ‘aid recipients’ - showing them realistically as agents in aid delivery rather than just an end point - we might find that the public’s estimation of aid recipients improves. Or even better: We may find that terms like ‘aid recipient’ are just no longer fit for purpose.” Molly Anders, Development Engagement Lab

Still not convinced that being offensive and inaccurate is enough reason to move on from these kinds of images? Here’s one more reason: There’s little evidence it will actually mobilise more support for ODA and global solidarity. 

Relying on images that evoke negative emotions like shock and pity when talking about poverty might work in the short term to raise donations, but can ultimately disenfranchise the public from feeling they can make any difference long term. Deep canvassing evidence from around the UK has suggested that pitiful portrayals of people living in poverty, sometimes called ‘poverty porn’, can convince people that nothing ever changes, pushing them away from supporting ODA. The most recent findings from the Development Engagement Lab on this suggest that people are equally likely to donate to campaigns that show positive and negative images, but that those shown positive images were more likely to want to find out more via a newsletter and crucially, more likely to think their donation makes a difference. It would be interesting to find out the extent to which this same idea can be applied to people’s support (or not) for the UK’s ODA budget. In the context of the debate happening in the UK now, surely we should be striving for long term support for ODA and for people to believe in its contribution towards positive change? 

Evidence also says that on the whole, when it comes to talking about ‘aid’, the general public does not see “aid recipients” as relatable messengers, compared to people like frontline workers and some celebrities. Only a small proportion of people in the UK have been to a so-called developing country, and so many people rely on TV, film and the news to form their ideas of what a place might be like. All of us who support eradicating global poverty shape the way members of the public think about ODA, and the way they perceive people living in formerly colonised countries. Historically, charities have been guilty of reinforcing an “us” and “them” division between people in donor countries and people experiencing poverty in the ‘Global South’. And division does nothing to increase empathy and global solidarity. Public support for increasing or maintaining the UK’s ODA has risen in 2021, but the challenge will be to maintain or increase public support for ODA whilst there is still a need for it.

So how can we avoid images like this and move forwards?

“With a more conscious approach to how we communicate we can move beyond this damaging narrative, ensuring that we share effective messages on poverty and inequality, inspire people to take effective action and minimise any unintended harm we may be doing.” A guide for communicating global justice and solidarity, Health Poverty Action

Rather than rely on pity and reinforce binaries of “us” and “them”, let’s show and talk about solidarity and shared values. Development communications that humanise people who are experiencing poverty and tap into universally shared values like fairness, justice and equality can help shape how much people are willing to engage in support for ODA. Language is a key part of this and Health Poverty Action and partners have created a toolkit which helps advocates and organisations nuance communications about poverty and so-called aid.

And let’s collaborate more with people who have lived experience of interacting with ODA-funded programmes (whether they felt supported or not), and grassroots organisations in the ‘Global South’. More development communications need to be written, filmed or drawn in collaboration with the communities they are talking about. On Our Radar have some great examples of this, and are facilitating partnerships that equip people with the skills and tech to tell their own stories.

As people who care about global justice, we have a responsibility to call out stereotypes and offer alternatives, and sometimes our role is just to listen and amplify the voices of others. So next time you see a comic or image like this doing the rounds on Twitter, pause for a second before sharing it. And better still, make a point of educating yourself on harmful stereotypes and amplifying more nuanced stories of poverty and hope.


Further reading, listening and learning

Passing the mic:

The danger of a single story, (Ted Talk) Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Amplifying Global South Voices: Reflection & Actions, Melina Kalamandeen

“Our wish is for stories to be shared through the voices of those who are being portrayed, that stories focus more on how individuals are working to better their own situation, and for a more nuanced portrayal of local contextsRadiaid

How to Write About Africa, Binyavanga Wainaina

The Road To Recovery: First-person stories of healthcare in Sierra Leone, On Our Radar

Abraham Makanjuola – Family Affair (Africa Documentary) 

Better communications:

Poverty Porn and the (white) saviour complex, Sub-Saharan Advisory Panel (webinar)

A guide for communicating global justice and solidarity, Health Poverty Action and partners.

Shifting the power: A manifesto for journalism, On Our Radar

Five things that can’t be ignored about development photography, Claire Bracegirdle via Africa is a Country

Communications guidelines for NGOs, Hub Cymru Africa

The People in the Pictures: Vital perspectives on Save the Children’s image making

Racism and international development:

The Dangerous Narrative of the White Saviour Complex, Gurbir Matharu and Ellena Mouzouris, RESULTS Brighton group

Bond’s compilation of Anti-racism resources and facilitators

NoWhiteSaviours on Instagram

#PowerShifts Resources: Anti-Racism in Development and Aid, Maria Faciolince via Oxfam.

“Why do people use this imagery? Primarily because it appeals to white guilt” Degan Ali in conversation with RESULTS UK (webinar)

JMB Consultancy Anti-Racism Reading list


This list is by no means exhaustive. If you have any suggestions for additional resources from writers, advocates and storytellers of colour that we might include here, please email Dela on [email protected]