Pity Charity: When “Storytelling” is Abuse

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November 21, 2013; Trust.org

Writing in a blog on the Skoll World Forum for Social Entrepreneurship, Sebastien Marot discusses the practice by charities of featuring poor or abused children in videos meant to raise funds.

He says, “such a process re-traumatizes them and can stigmatize them forever. As one victim explains, ‘You know, my reputation has been lost because of this video…. Everybody looks down on me.’”

He points to two recent cases picked up by the media in Cambodia, where he is based, and references one organization which was accused of faking such stories “again,” and another where an “orphanage” staged an auction of children’s photos, having the children present them “to heighten audience pity, and thus, sales.” These kinds of actions by aid organizations re-victimize children.

He writes that the “primary role [of child protection agencies] is to protect these children from abuse and re-abuse and to build children’s futures. This often means giving them a clean slate, erasing the negative past, and not making it an ongoing reality…. Mainstream media needs to report on situations, yet it needs sensationalism to feed the public, secure high audience ratings, and attract advertisers. To easily achieve this, it is tempting to use the most emotionally charged visuals and stories. What better than a suffering child? Even better—from their point of view—is if the child is suffering or crying while telling about her or his ordeal.”

With “storytelling” all the rage, Marot finds that the search for an emotionally resonant story can result in deception that changes lives and historical narratives.

“We have witnessed a rapid increase of orphanages in Cambodia funded by local and foreign private donors, despite the fact that most of these children are not orphans. Furthermore, it is against current Cambodian government policies. Many donors do not have the capacity or desire to check the often-embellished stories told to them about the children. A main consequence is that sometimes organizations ‘sell the wrong problem,’ leading to the creation of programs built on incorrect assumptions. Thus, they do not provide the right solutions, and can further hurt the children with the money that was intended to protect them.”

—Ruth McCambridge

  • Justine

    this is not news for polio survivors the world over but the message here is about protecting children (rightly so) and the headlines and lead-ins in marketing the story do not make that differentiation…