Charities must stop creating objects of pity

In order to raise money, many charities use images and footage of individuals who appear helpless, needy and vulnerable. Although well-intentioned, this approach further dehumanises individuals by creating ‘objects of pity’ and it must stop!

Objects of pity

Charities that are set up to improve the lives of people with impairments often reinforce negative stereotypes of disabled people. In many adverts, disabled people are seen as needy and expensive, the purpose of this is that it is effective in raising money. 

Yet there is significant long-term damage in creating this incorrect stereotype. 

These adverts all too often focus on the medical model, rather than the social model. The medical model points the finger at the person with the impairment as being the problem – they need to be ‘cured’ or ‘fixed’. Yet the social model points the finger at society, saying that society disables people. This is because negative attitudes create stigma around disability causing disabled people to become isolated. 

All people with impairments are disabled by the way society is organised and the attitudes of the non-disabled. Attitudes such as:

 “He/she can’t come to your party because they are in a wheelchair” 

“I can’t teach them if they don’t understand because of their special needs

By defining someone by their impairment and by labelling that individual as the problem, we perpetuate inequality and discrimination. We also dehumanise people without recognising that there is always a way to include individuals. 

If an advert raises money for medical support for a person with an impairment, then that is fine. However, if the advert raises money by painting an image of a needy, expensive person who is a ‘problem’, then negative attitudes will prevail and people become ‘objects of pity’ – poor, no hopers who need to be fixed. This is wrong. It creates huge problems and it fails to change negative attitudes. 

They come in the name of helping

Similarly, there is a short documentary film called ‘They Come in the Name of Helping’ by Peter Brock, which highlights the problems created by Westerners going to developing nations in the name of helping but creating greater problems.

The film is from the perspective of young people living in Africa whose communities have received ‘help’ from white Westerners who think they know best, but often the projects result in failure. 

The people in the film describe how charities and individuals often go to Africa confident that they have the right ‘solution’, without speaking to or working with the local communities. These local communities are meant to be appreciative of the ‘help’ they are getting. 

As one of the women in the video says, those who are being helped “always feel very small, we see you (Westerners) as the giants of the day”. The problem with this is that charity should not be a case of superiors and subordinates, it should be about respect, cooperation and working to shape a better world. This cannot be done if people are stripped of their dignity, dehumanised and yet still meant to be grateful for the charity they receive.

Most of our knowledge about charity work in developing countries comes from the media, charities themselves, or the UN. The purpose is often to raise money and the best way to do this is to stir emotion – that’s why pictures of starving children generate lots of money. The problem with this is that we reinforce the image of the ‘helpless, poor African’. By doing this, we allow the ‘superior- inferior’ relationship between the West and developing nations, to become even more entrenched. So what’s the impact? An unequal relationship, without cooperation, respect or dignity being shown. If local people are ignored and do not have a say in how progress should be made, then projects will not be successful.

In the video, Joseph said: “the moment you start objectifying people you lose the feeling of connections and understanding with people. By just donating money and not engaging with the problem itself…it’s a very simplistic way of staying out of the problem.”

Another issue is, by failing to work with local people, local people are unable to gain the skills and knowledge required to alleviate their own problems in the future. The consequence of this is that a relationship of overdependence is created.

How are we different?

Firstly, we recognise the social model of disability, therefore, disability is NOT something a person can HAVE but is something that Society DOES TO a person. We know that people are disabled by society, so we work to change negative attitudes about disability so that disabled people can lead fulfilling lives. At Disability Africa, we won’t raise money for ‘helpless and needy people’ because we will not reinforce untruthful stereotypes. 

Also, we work with, support and train local partners in Africa. By working with and empowering project partners and community stakeholders, we can understand local problems more fully. In addition, we always have an exit strategy. Although Sustainable outcomes are impossible to achieve in a three-year cycle, particularly when they depend on changing people’s attitudes, we plan a clear, but not time-constrained, pathway towards full ownership and responsibility for the project for our local partner organisations. 

Charities should always consider the long-term impact of their work before trying to raise money or start a project, as they may be undoing all their hard work and the hard work of others.

You can see They Come in the Name of Helping below: