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Resisting "Poor but Happy": Resources for Communications Teams in NGO/Global Partnership S

I can think of any number of times in my past mission-work related life when I mimicked what I saw on television and on social media from white folks and NGOs on the ground in the global south. Images of black and brown children or adults with me at the helm, living my purpose at the expense of their privacy, livelihood, and dignity. While I have always tried to remain conscious, it seems that there are few campaigns and examples of how to document international partnerships without exploiting the subjects of the image, black and indigenous people of color.

For a long time NGOs insisted on creating visuals that would tug at the heart strings of white guilt--a white man's burden approach--by portraying those they sought to serve as starving, dirty, and on the brink of total destitution if we didn't go and help them. Active and hard lobbying from the global south got NGOs to shift their perspective to show their subjects in more positive light, often settling on smiling, happy, mothers and children, the hopeful, passive recipients of white global north generosity. This only served to further the "Poor but Happy" trope across international non-profit development work.

Is your communications on board with this theoretical perspective? Having trouble communicating it? Thinking about how to visually represent your international development work on Instagram, your website, or in a marketing campaign? Are you running an instagram or blog or marketing campaign and you don't know how to begin? Check out these resources below and share them with your communications team as a beginning to thinking about what you and your organization can do to counteract these tropes. Specifically, check out Acumen's 2017 #Seethepeople campaign in which they address this issue in NGO photography head on.

Read up on these resources to avoid perpetuating the “Poor but Happy” trope, fetishization of poverty, and privacy rights violations of children.


Chris Elliott, Can you picture poverty without humiliating the poor, The Guardian, 11/24/2015, available at:

Terrence Cullen, Trump Jr praises happy poor people during scrutinized business trip to India, New York Post, 2/20/2018 available at:

Tom Bundervoet, Poor but happy? 3/28/2013, World Bank Blog, available at:

Malaka Gharib, Volunteering Abroad? Read this before you post that selfie, NPR Goats and Soda, 11/26/2017 available at:

Lauren Elizabeth Pohl, A call for ethical standards in nonprofit humanitarian photography, Medium, 12/6/2017available at:

Lina Dencik and Stuart Allen, In/visible conflicts: NGOs and the visual politics of humanitarian photography, Sage Journals Volume: 39 issue: 8, page(s): 1178-1193 Article first published online: August 18, 2017; Issue published: November 1, 2017 available at:

Laura Ealing, The Poor but Happy Myth, Wonderlust blog, 8/26/16 available at:

Dayo Olopade, 11 myths busted by the Bright Continent, Buzzfeed, 3/12/2014 available at:

Jennifer Lenter, Yes, charities want to make an impact. But poverty porn is not the way to do it. The Guardian, 01/12/2018 available at:

Acumen, Acumen and Martin Schoeller launch #SeePeople campaign to change the way the world sees the poor, Acumen blog post, 10/17/2017 available at:

Chandra T. Mohanty, Under western eyes: feminist scholarship and colonial discourse, boundary 2, Vol. 12, No. 3, On Humanism and the University I: The Discourse of Humanism. (Spring - Autumn, 1984), pp. 333-358. Available at:


Poverty, Inc


Antony Loewenstein, Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing Out of Catastrophe, 2017

Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (and How to Reverse It), 2011

Dayo Olopade, Bright Continent: Breaking the Rules and Making Change in Modern Africa, 2014

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