The Poverty Porn Antidote? Reality TV.

This post is by Matt Muspratt, a lawyer and freelance writer based in Ghana. Matt blogs at mmuspratt.com, where an extended version of this piece first appeared.

‘Tis the season of nonprofit solicitations . . . and hand-wringing among smart-aid advocates.

Count me among those cringing at the simplistic imagery clogging mailboxes and inboxes: That barrage of photos of poor/hungry/ill children and slogans assuring that everything in Africa and Haiti is poverty (or worse) — and that “you can save them” with your donation.

But to where, exactly, can the discerning aid watcher turn for proper depictions of poor countries?

The answer is surprising: Reality TV. Specifically, The Amazing Race, that round-the-world game show whose season finale airs Sunday on CBS.

Now you can also count me among those who cringe at Under Armour-clad Americans blowing through fine European sites and barking at Dhaka rickshaw drivers. I’m sure Sunday’s finale will feature vintage reality TV bickering and silly team challenges. But The Amazing Race proved one thing this season: Its depictions of poor countries are far more humane than what many nonprofits come up with.

My case study is Ghana — where I live — which was the setting for recent TAR episodes. After watching, I set out across Accra to track down the Ghanaians who appeared in and co-produced the episodes. What they had to say — and what Americans watched — is worlds away from much nonprofit solicitation imagery.

If I may generalize, the manipulative tools of offending solicitations include (a) depicting Westerners as Africa experts, and Africans as helpless; (b) spotlighting Western heroes (Bono, neighborhood kid, yourself) while rendering Africans voiceless; (c) insisting Africa is only poor.

In Ghana, TAR confounds expectations by doing the exact opposite. It (a) shows bumbling Americans; (b) highlights the lives of Ghanaians in Ghana; (c) rejects poverty porn.

Take TAR’s first challenge. Teams hawk sunglasses in Accra’s Makola Market — and they’re out of their element. Makola is lively with Ghanaians laughing, pointing at the Americans struggling to operate. Says one contestant: “They’re looking at me like, ‘We do this every day and you’re not doing it right.'” A man toys with her, joking he wants to buy 200 sunglasses. She doesn’t get it. Later, another contestant tasked with mounting a TV antenna says: “I don’t know what I’m doing!”

Not exactly the self-confident trumpeting of expertise — or reassurance that aid is simple — that characterizes nonprofit solicitations. How refreshing to see a Ghana where it is the Westerners who are helpless.

And even more refreshing to see Ghanaians in Ghana.

Despite good intentions, nonprofit solicitations often illustrate a world where Westerners act and poor people do nothing but await their coming — if they’re there at all. A celebrity stumps for a charity, you are called on to rescue Haiti, and a poor child’s thoughts are limited to “help me” bubble quotes.

(The media can follow suit. Vanity Fair published an article on Sean Penn’s work in Haiti that was virtually devoid of Haitians. In Nick
Kristof’s D.I.Y. foreign aid piece
, which drew
fire for its Western-hero-saves-the-day formulation
, the poor get only one direct quote — a Congolese woman says, “I believe God sent Lisa to rescue me from my misery.”)

The upshot is that solicitations (and media) often paint the poor as lifeless and without character or agency, if not outright absent from the landscape.

Not so Amazing Race. According to TAR, Ghanaians live agency-filled lives. Or, as Daniel Oblie told me outside his Ga fantasy coffin workshop featured in the show: “It’s a great film. Because you see many things.”

Many Ghanaian things. Patience Tetteh Commey — the teacher who witnessed contestants repeatedly failing to locate Ghana on a map — loved the variety of team challenges: “[The producers] were picking the things we do and use.”

The contestants box at a Jamestown gym — the host tells us “boxing gyms like this appear in neighborhoods throughout the country.” The contestants race bicycle rims at the Asebi D/A Primary School in Dodowa District — that’s a real place, not a generic dusty school in a solicitation photo. The contestants get stuck in traffic.

Ga coffins, boxing, games, and traffic are the stuff of life in Ghana — but not according to nonprofit solicitations.

Finally, TAR refuses to traffic in poverty. Not even when contestants barge into Teshie’s cement and tin-roof houses to mount TV antennas. No violins and despair over whether the family has running water or cookstoves. It’s just a family who likes to watch TV. Solicitations would never depict a Teshie home like that.

Alas, in the final scenes, I’m afraid TAR succumbs to nonprofit imagery.

The contestants were at the primary school and TAR had been in fine form: No lectures on meeting the universal primary education MDG. No interviews with Western volunteer teachers in front of mum, silenced students. No heartbreak over a dearth of school supplies. Unassuming; populating Ghana; renouncing poverty porn.

But as each contestant skipped to the finish line, the host greeted them with this: “Tomorrow you’re going to come and do some remodeling of the classrooms. Give back to this community.”

And so even Amazing Race reduced Ghana to poor kids and you-can-save-them slogans, bringing the expert Western hero to the fore and silencing the poor African child.

Early on, one racer had squeaked, “I hope I get to hold little African babies.” She didn’t get that treat, but delivered the encapsulating line as the Americans painted the school in front of the children: “It’s nice to be able to do something for them.”

I asked Teddy Sabutey, the local producer who assisted TAR’s crew, how he thought Ghana fared through the TAR lens. “Your Western media, your cup of tea is to portray us negatively,” he started.

But Sabutey, who turns down productions that harp on “negativity,” said TAR’s producers were different. “[They] wanted the good side, and the fun. So we made sure we delivered that.”

As for the school, Sabutey says refurbishing was simply part of the deal with TAR. The teachers now report a consequent increase in enrollment. Indeed a great — and worthwhile — outcome.

Even better we saw the real Ghana along the way.

15 thoughts on “The Poverty Porn Antidote? Reality TV.

  1. How about cartoon TV as an antidote to poverty porn? Adamu Waziri, Nigerian creator of the new "Bino and Fino" animated series, says that he strives for "representation of modern, urban, global, multicultural, smart, technologically driven Africa." Has anybody out there seen "Bino and Fino" yet?

  2. Have to admit, there's a lot of stereotype breaking coming out of reality TV. I've seen articles talking about how there's far greater diversity on reality TV than on regular TV. As a frequent HGTV viewer, I have to agree. Gay couples or bi-racial couples are common and shown just like everyone else, with a house or yard that needs help.

  3. I think you are onto something here. What interests me is the difference it makes when the focus of the 'story-teller' is on finding and highlighting the positive. This isn't only a problem in depiction of aid in Africa, it's also a huge problem in the environmental and human rights movements more generally. I have friends whose entire mission for the past five years has been to find new ways to tell storys about the world that focus on positive, engaged people rather than 'victims' and here's one interesting note about them – they themselves are happy, engaged and positive. Hmmm.

  4. I actually saw the episodes in question (the amazing race being my one concession to the reality TV craze). I have to admit I was really apprehensive when I saw they were heading to my beloved Accra.

    I'm not sure I'm quite as positive about it as Matt, mostly because of the stream of "look at the pathetic poor people" coming out of the contestants mouths. That and them always mispronouncing "Accra."

    But, it could have been far, far worse, and it was hilarious to watch children fill up the map of Africa while no small chunk of the contestants were completely baffled as to where in the world they were. (I mean, wouldn't you say, "Hey, we're off to Ghana, I wonder where that is." and look it up while you were on the way?)

  5. I'm not sure a show that says "Ghanaians are strong, Westerners are helpless" is more refreshing than the cringe-worthy "Africans are helpless without Western celebrities and YOU"

    I like the TV example because it suggests that we all have similar wants/needs, rather than "Africans are good at some things, and Westerners are good at others" (the premise of the show really).

    Who will make the first reality dating show in Africa that pulls on the heartstrings of Americans because it tugs at the same emotions/drama that make US dating shows popular (even if the customs and traditions are different)?

    Kudos for showing Ghanaians in Ghana though! Also good to know that the entire population of the African continent are not under the age of 3 :)

    http://searchingforacause.wordpress.com

  6. Well written post and I am glad to see that there are shows looking to portray more than just the 'single-story' perception many Westerners have of African people.

    Thanks for sharing your viewpoint!

  7. My mother calls that "misery tourism," and I agree, especially with your point that it shows Africans as helpless and all poor. I never thought that it could change through reality TV, though! I must admit that I don't watch the show… can you find it on the internet?
    While I do support a bunch of nonprofits, I find the constant catalogs of Heifer International (you know, the ones with all the malnourished babies on the front) a little disingenuous…

    windeater.blogspot.com

  8. Really enjoyed your post. A human rights organisation working on eastern Burma/Myanmar orients their reporting around the human agency you rightly note is lacking from much humanitarian discourse. See: http://www.khrg.org/khrg2008/khrg0803.html

    This perspective has been adapted (and de-politicised) somewhat since 2008, but the motivating premise remains the same. It's always interesting to hear similar ideas expressed in other contexts.

    Cheers,

    C

  9. "Searching for a cause"… while it's not reality tv, the National Geographic "Africa" series did a great job of portraying dating/marriage issues in Africa in culturally positive and touching way. One episode covered a Fulani girl and her boyfriend… he was out on the cattle drive, and she was waiting for him to return, hoping for his success so they could be married. Very sweet! Another that I really loved was about a city girl who had married a man from a hunter-gatherer tribe and lived in the bush with him for 11 years without contact with her family. She went back to the city to visit (and consider whether she wanted to move back), and decided her hunter-gatherer life in the bush was better. At any rate, the series did a fine job of portraying how romance and love can look through the lenses of various African cultures.

  10. I agree with GeoGeek that the contestants supplied plenty of ugly quotes. But, for me, those quotes didn’t translate into the reduction of Ghanaians into inactive objects of development, awaiting the help of the expert West — as we see in nonprofit solicitations.

    What did bother me, though, was the lack of quotes — from Ghanaians. We never got their take on the craziness. (That deficiency — the Western visitor dictates the narrative — might prompt some media/anthro scholars to slam TAR as neo-imperial.)

    By the way, over at Waylaid Dialectic, folks are discussing the precise harm poverty porn causes (http://waylaiddialectic.wordpress.com/2010/12/06/in-praise-of-poverty-porn/). Some NGOs do good work and need money to do it — not sure if it’s a pros-outweigh-cons dynamic, but is simplistic imagery ever justified by good works?

    - Matt | mmuspratt.com

  11. For any British readers, 'The World's Strictest Parents' is another reality TV show that depicts families in the developing world (and elsewhere) positively without romanticizing them. So refreshing to see ordinary African families shown, with all their individual dynamics and characteristics, without focusing on them being poor.

  12. There was a lively discussion about poverty-porn stereotypes on Scarlett Lion earlier this fall, and I mentioned The Amazing Race episode in the comments:

    http://www.scarlettlion.com/2010/10/just-how-stereotypical-are-images-of-africa.html

    It also struck me as a rather transformational media depiction, simply in that it treated Accra as any other spot that the teams rush through, cameras in tow. What TAR and reality TV is often effective at doing, transmitted a good sense, in scenery and atmospherics, of being on the street in a West African city.
    I never underestimate the ignorance of my fellow Americans, and I can't help but think that it would have surprised some of them to see Americans running around in a busy market, interacting with passing locals, without particular concern for their safety. All of that, I hope, might have enlightened viewers who are unfamiliar with African cities, can't find them on the map, and mostly come across photos of misery.
    I was also disappointed at the end when they made a point of "giving back" at the school. I don't follow TAR through its many seasons, but where else has the show had its contestants do that? Certainly not Bangkok or Prague. Why isn't having a huge production crew filming in the city, with the many thousands of dollars that must have brought into Ghana, not "giving back" enough? I wish the place was treated the same as any other location all the way through.

  13. While I agree that it's great to see more variety in depicting developing countries than poverty porn, I think there is a problem with the comparisons here. The Amazing Race is a TV show, with a purpose to entertain. 'Poverty porn,' however, is often used for the purposes of fundraising.

    A bit like comparing apples with oranges?

  14. Pingback: Why poverty porn is like shoulder pads and leg warmers | whydev.org

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