First Dignity, Then Charity

Ramadan is upon us once again, and during this month Muslims are encouraged to give generously to those with less.  We fast during the day from food and water in the hopes that we will be grateful, remember to be humble, and give generously from what we have.

Ramadan is a bit like a bottle of heart sanitizer, getting rid of diseases that might have infected it from one year to the next.

But while we are here, cleaning our hearts away, I have noticed a troubling trend about how those in need are portrayed. Whether it is in Ramadan, or beyond, we have become accustomed to charitable campaigns with images that are meant to shock, and shame us into giving.  Communications coming from charities are trying to invoke a sense of sympathy towards the image, the situation and the persona within it to push us to click on that button and donate.  “There!”, we think to ourselves, “I’ve done something about it!”.

 And while the intentions of all parties involved may be good (and the outcomes might be as well),  we neglect the impact that such imagery has on the most important community in this equation:  the beneficiaries themselves.  Using their vulnerability, touching as it may be, to advance an objective that may or may not be directly related to them is nothing short of exploitation.  It makes us view them as objects, their pain instrumentalized, rather than people who are resilient, resourceful and dignified.  Worse yet, it may also make them see themselves with the same narrow lens cast upon them.

Hamid Hossein explains how he feels about being selected for OBAT Canada’s eyesight restoration program.

Now you might be thinking, this is all pretty harmless, as long as the funds get there, then why should this be an issue? Well it’s an issue because it colours our perception of who these people are, and it limits our abilities to truly engage with the root causes of systemic, complex issues.  We are encouraged to literally throw money at the problem without ever understanding the source of their pain. Instead, we are abusing their pain to erase our discomfort with the realities on the ground.

These images, meant to pull at our heartstrings, are usually taken without consent, and are used to suit the communications agenda of the day.  There is  often little connection between the picture of the hungry, dirty child with the wide eyes and the particular program that is being promoted.  Charities are guilty of treating these images as “generic”.  Their suffering is “generic”, they may not even be recipients of the funds you send but they represent a “generic” type of poverty that makes you click that button.

Surely we can do better than this as a global community.  These individuals are not generic.  They are people with families, stories, hardships and successes.  They are people that deserve to be dignified, just as we expect to be dignified.  We need to move beyond pity, that is not enough.

We need to care.  And I am certain that many donors do.

When you care about someone, you don’t expose their vulnerabilities for the world to gawk at, you don’t reduce them to objects of pain.  When you care, you celebrate their success, you encourage them to persevere through hardship, and you give them opportunities and tools to succeed.  When you care you shield them from pain and humiliation, not define them by it.

Rohingya children studying at one of OBAT Canada’s learning centers

Our team at OBAT Canada is always engaged in thoughtful discussion regarding how we raise awareness about the difficulties our beneficiaries face, in a dignified way that reflects their holistic person.  It’s a process and while we might not always get it right along the way, we try our best and consistently reflect about this.  And no matter what, one thing is non-negotiable for us: we seek not only consent, but informed consent before we use images. Images that we use are directly related to our programs, our beneficiaries have names and stories when they appear in pictures alone.  We don’t use fancy filters to make images look more dramatic, our beneficiaries have enough drama in their lives.

We who read this, have been bestowed with immense privilege and opportunity.  We just happened to be born in the right places, in countries that are safe with the resources and will to care for their citizens.  We didn’t earn those privileges, they were given to us. But just imagine if that happened to change, and we found ourselves in compromising situations.  How would we want to be portrayed? Dignified through adversity, or humiliated through pain?  Let’s work together to get rid of this practice, and put dignity back into charity.