The Poverty Porn Antidote? Reality TV.

This post is by Matt Muspratt, a lawyer and freelance writer based in Ghana. Matt blogs at, 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.

We Are All Deeply Interested In Subtext

Via Chris Blattman, an excellent video:

The Blatt Man did not know where it came from, but some sleuthing (and the assistance of our brilliant long-time reader Andrew) has tentatively identified the source as Episode 3 of Armando Ianucci’s 2001 show for Britain’s Channel 4. This message board lists the following plot synopsis for that episode:

Episode 3. [Tx 13/09/2001]
TV executives buy up the rights to broadcast life in a Buddhist monastery, a Priest sleeps with his entire congregation, and no one can buy anything without being evil. Also, Kenyan farmers plea for us to give money to British theatre, a different Priest puts on a pornographic mass, and Armando is shouted at for throwing away a sweet wrapper in someone else’s bin.

Hat Tip Chris Blattman, who got it from Kerry at IPA.

This Just In: Poor People Not Necessarily Irresponsible, Stupid

Aid Watch’s Laura Freschi has a great post on an innovative program of disaster relief employed after flash floods hit parts of Zambia in 2007: handing out envelopes of cash. Despite concerns about security, corruption, and poor people’s inability to know what was good for them, the program turned out to be a big success. People bought the things that they needed, spent very little on “unproductive” items like tobacco and booze, and even did clever things like saving a portion of the money to buy seed with later in the season. Crazy, right? It’s almost as if poor people could be trusted to make decisions for themselves!

From Laura’s post:

What did people buy with the money? The list includes maize, beans, salt, cooking oil, meat, vegetables, clothes and blankets, paraffin, transport, soap and body lotion, and lots of other mundane household items. They also loaned it to friends, used it to pay back debts, purchased health care, education and transport, and rebuilt their homes. Only a very small fraction of the money (less than .5%) was spent on “unproductive” items, like liquor for the men.”

From the project evaluation report:

“The evaluator considered that this was highly cost effective compared to typical food distribution projects. It is also significantly more cost effective than a response which attempted to provide the range of relief items which were actually purchased by beneficiaries with the cash. In addition, the flexibility of cash transfers (use of the money by the people according to their priority), the less burdensome logistical/administrative requirements (procurement, transport, quality maintenance, storage, delivery etc.), the lower requirement on staff time and a lower level of risk of ‘leakage’ make this type of intervention very attractive from a cost-effectiveness point of view.”

A similar story, from Acumen Fund’s blog, (via Alanna’s Twitter feed):

“I was touring the villages to better understand the market for an Insect Trap, an innovation incubated at Villgro. The poor inhabitants of these villages, not only amazed me with their understanding on the variety of problems they faced but also with the sheer ingenuity of some of the solutions they had come up with.

My work at Villgro took me to villages around India and I re-lived this aha moment many times over until I had a much bigger Aha!

What in the world made me assume that the poor are dumb?

Obviously, what I had heard from the villagers was, in most of the cases, just common knowledge for them. In retrospect, I had these big aha’s because at some level I was prejudiced with the assumption that poor people did not know what their problems are, if they did know about their problems, they were not articulate enough and even if they were articulate, they were not smart enough to solve the problem.”

"The big difference between a poor Asian household and an equally poor African one is hope"

Paul Collier to United Nations, via the NY Times: Sack up, Ho!

“Well, take, for instance, the American biofuel scam (the ethanol subsidies that have diverted 30 percent of American corn away from the food supply) and the European ban on genetically modified seeds, imitated by Africa, have both contributed to Africa’s worsening food shortage. Where is the United Nations pressure for an end to these follies?

Why, also, did the United Nations not intervene militarily when the democratic government of Mauritania, another country in the bottom billion, was overthrown by a coup last month? Where is an alternative initiative to open international trade to poor countries now that the Doha round talks have collapsed? Above all, with a five-year-old commodities boom transferring wealth to some of the countries of the bottom billion, where are the international guidelines on taxation and investment that might help these countries convert earnings from exports of depleting minerals into productive assets like roads and schools?”

Oooh, burn.

Chad Not So Rad After All

IRIN reported today that the mayor of Ndjamena, Chad took advantage of the confusion engendered by recent rebel attacks to knock down a bunch of people’s houses. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, President Idriss Deby imposed a state of emergency which had the effect of suspending all sorts of pesky civil liberties; among them, due process.

Meanwhile, Mayor Mahamat Zène Bada’s efforts to get rid of thousands of poor people had been stymied by the slow pace of the judicial process, criticism from the media, and counter-efforts by local civil society. When the presidential decree took effect, he pounced, evicting the tenants of more than 1000 houses scattered around the city, and immediately demolishing their homes. Conveniently, the decree banned discussion of just this sort of governmental measure undertaken pursuant to it.

Asked whether this sort of thing wasn’t, well, sort of sneaky and mean, the Mayor responded: “We are in a period of immunity. The Head of State has made this decision. When we are told this, we cannot argue. I have nothing more to say.”

Except then it turned out he did have something more to say which was that everyone should be happy about the demolitions because now “we can build primary and secondary schools and colleges, medical centres, libraries, sporting facilities, markets and bus stations.” As IRIN pointed out, this is perhaps not the most plausible statement given that the ongoing instability means there are virtually no construction companies operating in Chad.

Meanwhile, the evictees will likely receive no compensation for the loss of their property because of the difficulty assessing the value. (Might have been easier pre-demolition, eh?) Any bets on the first government to copycat this strategy? My money’s on Cambodia.

Criminal Stupidity

The central bank of Zimbabwe announced today that the nation’s annual rate of inflation had nearly tripled during December 2007, and had reached an astronomical 66,212%. In November, it was the world’s highest at 24,470%. By the new year, it was almost three times higher.

The Zimbabwean dollar has never been what you’d call stable, but things have been growing steadily worse since President Mugabe began his program of compulsory land redistribution in 2000. In February of 2007, he decided to take drastic measures to address the economic disaster. He outlawed inflation.

Shockingly, inflation didn’t listen to him. By May of 2007, things had gotten so bad that the IMF was predicting that Zimbabwe’s inflation rate would hit 6000% by the end of 2008. As it turns out, they were off by one year and an order of magnitude.

Meanwhile, Mugabe lives in a 25-bedroom mansion and manages to ignore the fact that his country’s HIV prevalence rate is one of the highest in the world, and that life expectancy has dropped to 37 years for men and 34 for women under his rule.

Oh yeah, and it turns out the central bank was lowballing it a bit. The IMF puts the current rate of annual inflation at 150,000%.

The Most Surprising Thing I Read Today

This New York Times article discusses the problems that the poorest children in India face when trying to get an education in the failing public school system there. It’s pretty standard stuff: lack of funds + lack of accountability + lack of political clout for the lowest castes/classes = lack of decent education prospects. Yawn.

What surprised me was this line, meant to underscore the importance of education, and the negative consequences of having to do without one:

“Among the poorest 20 percent of Indian men, half are illiterate, and barely 2 percent graduate from high school, according to government data. By contrast, among the richest 20 percent of Indian men, nearly half are high school graduates and only 2 percent are illiterate.”

Wha?? 2% of the men in India’s richest 20% are illiterate? Half of the richest 20% have not graduated from high school?

Just so we’re clear, that is a huge number of people: India’s population is about 1.29 billion. Assuming conservatively that men make up only 50% of India’s population, that means that the line could have read “Incredibly, nearly 56 million men have managed to find their way into the richest 20% of the population without ever completing high school. Even more incredibly, 11.25 million have managed to do so despite being illiterate.”

I want to know more about that! What is going on there? The possible explanations I’ve come up with, listed after the jump:

1) The statistic is just wrong. (Always worth considering.)

2) The statistic is technically correct, but misleading: perhaps there is such a large gap between the top top 10% and the next 10% that these men have not actually overcome their lack of education as much it appears? I’m not sure that this explanation makes much difference, though: even if it’s true, they’ve still beat out the other 80%. I would like to know how.

3) Wealth arising out of owning land that has suddenly become more valuable (I say “suddenly” because I would guess that families that are already in the top 20% would educate their children. However, I don’t know much about land ownership in India, so I could be way off base here.)

4) Oh. Corruption and crime. Sigh….