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.

WTF Friday, 9/17/10

  • Something does not sound quite right about this: British-born Jessica Jordan, Miss Bolivia 2006, is now responsible for development in Beni, north-east Bolivia, including the allocation of $700m in development funds.

    Bolivian President Evo Morales met Jordan while she held the Miss Bolivia crown, and was apparently impressed by the political skill she had demonstrated by parading around in a nude body-stocking, draped in plastic vines. Mr. Morales “encouraged her” to stand for governor in Beni, and then appointed her Director of Development for the region after she lost the election.

    In response to critics who claim she lacks the proper experience and background for the position, Jordan said “Sometimes there is discrimination only because you’re young and you’re a woman. The President is a huge example of this.” Right, because misogyny and age discrimination are really what’s holding Evo Morales back.

  • The Lao Brewing Company has made a contribution to the Ministry of Education in Laos for both school supplies and scholarships for children in poor districts. It’s good that the kids will learn early on that “alcohol” and “education” go together like “cigarettes” and “looking cool.”
  • This is “gotcha” journalism at its best. If Eddie Murphy makes a film, you better damn well be aware of its cultural legacy before invoking his character, or you’re gonna get got.