How images of collaboration and agency are rewriting the story of poverty on Twitter

Photo credit Ibrahim Rifath.
Photo credit: Ibrahim Rifath

Today on The Social Diplomat, we draw from the research of Monique Costner and Tanu Kohli, which examines the role that “poverty porn” has played in the recent media campaigns of several well-known INGOs. As Costner and Kohli argue:

“Although INGO media campaigns may have come a long way from the extreme shock-based approaches of the Live Aid era, problematic elements persist.”

These elements come in the form of over-simplified portrayals of both development work and poverty, specifically in the Global South. Fortunately, Costner and Kohli conclude their analysis with some helpful suggestions for visually portraying poverty and development work in a way that challenges stereotypes while also helping the public understand its importance as a global issue. That’s big! What’s bigger is that one of these suggestions is easily actionable today for anyone communicating with the public on social media:

Use images with active portrayals of people in development areas.

As Costner and Kohli note, media campaigns often opt for passive portrayals of people from the Global South in order to elicit the viewer’s help. The classic example is children staring solemnly at the camera, “but generally not engaging in any action.” Proponents argue that this style of portrayal is necessary for achieving viewer engagement. But:

Statistics show that images with active portrayals of people in development areas are just as effective in achieving viewer engagement as their passive counterparts. Moreover, they give viewers a realistic picture of development work as it occurs on the ground: one that is complex and collaborative.

Examples of active images may include:

  • aid workers who are: local to the areas they work in, speaking various languages, and of different ethnic and religious backgrounds.
  • children in active roles such as: attending school, playing, engaging others, or receiving packages.

I am pleased to report that many of you on the unsocial500 leaderboard choose these active images when talking about poverty. Your success in gaining followers is proof that the public is receptive to stories that challenge over-simplified narratives.

Keep up the good work and I’ll see you on Twitter!

Costner, M., & Kohli, T. (2018). “Poverty Porn”: The Narratives of INGO Media Campaigns. Retrieved from

The Social Diplomat is a series of posts that will show how recent research on various topics in media and development can help you, our social media users at the UN, achieve the common goal of connecting the public to your work.

Tarah Van De Wiele

Dr. Tarah Van De Wiele is a freelance writer living in Pennsylvania. She specializes in the sustainability market and movement. When she isn't writing, she's reading any book that is too long and needs a map of its fantasy world. She's also well-trained by her dogs.

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