How to tell the story of poverty without exploiting poor people … again

I have seen many teams proudly wearing all kinds of crazy on a t-shirt. Bright colours, comic sans font and a heavy scripture verse seem to be important to really show off your STM convictions. I admit I have been guilty of creating a few sweet mission T’s myself.

But the T-shirt slogan that still makes me cringe the most was the one with the slogan “To the least of these”


Good Intentions (I have to hope…)

I understand that the team was well-intentioned. They had probably read the words in Matthew 25 and saw themselves as the hero giving to the poor. I understand why they thought the way they did, but they were wrong. No one wants to be someone else victim.

Least of all, to be seen as the least of anything.

This is not some weird isolated event either. I hear this kind of language all the time. Well meaning volunteers always see themselves as the hero in the story. I recall talking to a person who really wanted to volunteer overseas. As she spoke she gushed about her love for the poor in Africa, and at one point actually said these words,

I just love those chocolate babies!”

I am not joking. Those words actually came out of her mouth. She meant it in love and compassion. Her heart was in it, but her words were a bit insane.


Crappy engagement, with the best of intentions, is still crappy

Frankly, people like her are not that unusual. When a disaster happens in the western world and people begin to rally, someone will always hitch their wagon to the crisis and try to co-opt the outpouring of compassion.

“Sure, a bunch of people were forced to abandon their homes due to that hurricane, but do you know how many people die of malaria or polio each week!?!”

No one likes it.

It sounds a lot like self-centred complaining rather than it sounds like real compassion for a needy person. Any agency that tries to guilt people into awareness is lame, more importantly …


This technique totally does not work.

People just tune out. It is a bit like ‘liking‘ the Kony video from last year – it feels good, almost like you are signing a petition or something, but it is totally meaningless. Seriously, do you think Kony worried about how many Facebook likes the video got?

Speaking of video, I recently saw this one. It seems to be making the rounds. Sure it’s funny – but it also made me mad. Its another comparison video

I think you should watch it critically

How are all of the people in the video portrayed? Would you want to be portrayed and shown in this way? What is the intent?

Does it promote conversation and respect for the capacity of others, or just pull on heartstrings?

Do you think that this kind of video makes a difference?

Mark Crocker

March 15, 2018

4 responses on "How to tell the story of poverty without exploiting poor people ... again"

  1. The people in the video are portrayed as poor and way less better off than we are. It depicts them as the total opposite of the Western World. I would definitely not like to be portrayed in this way. First of all, the comparison makes you look completely helpless and under educated about first world issues. It makes them seem as though their needs are way above ours. The intent of the video is to pull at our heart strings. They want us to feel guilty for thinking the way we do about our first world problems so that we can help them. I’ll admit it is a good motive to help Western people to reevaluate how they live their lives but it is unfair to the people in this video to exploit them in that way. They are no just objects that are too poor to care for themselves and can only survive with the help of the Western World. The portrayal of them as weak people is not something that anyone wants to be portrayed as. It definitely does not promote the capacity of others.

    This video is not a good way to tell the story of the poor. Videos like this in general always exploit the people to make them seem helpless and useless in their situations. We should be talking about what causes poverty and try to show how we can help with that rather than trying to be the people’s saviour.

  2. anytime i find myself in thinking of others as ‘needing what i have’ is maybe a good time to evaluate what i think i need …

  3. Here’s what kills me about this video…the assumption that the “Third World” or “Majority World” people don’t understand the inconveniences of modern life. I also think it creates this false and unhealthy relational structure where #FirstWorld people can only relate with #MajorityWorld people through means of benevolence…

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