Why charities use guilt and we never will

30 Nov 1999
I remember the first time I really encountered images of poverty. I was 18, and had just finished watching Rocky on TV. I switched the channel and found a re-run of the 1985 Live Aid concert.

Live Aid Poverty

Next minute an image of a starving boy popped up on the screen. He was all alone in the desert, tears streaming down his face and vultures circling above. It hit me like a ton of bricks. Tears started to flow down my face, I was in complete shock. I had never seen anything like this before, how could humanity be so cruel that this young boy has to endure such pain and suffering? I sat for the next hour as images just like this flickered on screen, one after the other, my mouth wide open. The next day I was walking through the shopping centre. I saw a big NGO's child sponsorship team standing next to their stall, smiling. Usually I’d avoid eye contact and walk around them. But not this time. As soon as I saw them, I remembered the poor starving boy from the Live Aid re-run and without any hesitation I signed up and began sponsoring a young boy. So, why do charities use guilt? The answer is simple. It works. While the Live Aid concert was highly criticized as being merely a celebrity ‘feel good’ concert, the images they showed of starving children, and people living in extreme poverty - worked. In total the Live Aid appeal raised over £40 million and completely changed the way so many people saw the world, and poverty in Africa.  I’m living proof of it.

So if it works, why not do it?

When Chantelle and I started One Girl, we were both working for big NGOs, who have been known to sometimes use the starving boy or girl image to guilt people into giving. Things aren’t as bad now, and many charities have stopped using these kinds of images, but they are still out there. On a related sidenote, there was a brilliant campaign called the Rusty Radiator Awards last year, which called out charities around the world for using stereotypical images and guilt, and also praising charities who were getting it right, check it out here. Having met some of our scholarship girls, their families and others in the communities we were working with, seeing those pictures still made me sick, but this time for a different reason. How could NGOs be so disrespectful to a young boy or girl who is at their most vulnerable moment and then broadcast it to the world? From the very beginning one of the first things Chantelle and I made very clear, was we would never use guilt to sell. We believe no one is a victim. We all face challenges. Every man, woman and girl we work with is strong and capable – and that’s how we represent them. There are no victims here.

One Girl Sierra Leone Photographs

Part of my job at One Girl is to take our photos and make our videos, I’m the guy behind the camera. This is by far the part of my job I love most. When I was 16 I used sit on the roof of my house, taking hundreds of sunset photos and dream of becoming a national geographic photographer. I still pinch myself when I’m standing in Sierra Leone taking photos, ‘Is this really happening?’ But that’s not why I love it. I love it because I get to share a special moment with each girl, mother, father, teacher and chief that I get to photograph. In this moment I usually make a fool out of myself and we laugh together, as two human beings - as equals. In this moment there is nothing that separates us. One Girl Sierra LeoneI usually have to make a fool out of myself to get the girls to laugh, but when they do, it's infectious!
I feel a huge responsibility to make sure I’m always capturing our girls with dignity and respect. Not for our team, not for you, or our supporters; I do it for the girls and their families.
If I feel a photo doesn’t show them with dignity and respect I won’t pass it on to the team and if I can avoid taking it in the first place, I do. You'll never find a photo on our website with a girl crying, frowning or vulnerable. Everyone we work with is an empowered and strong - and that's how we represent them.

One Girl Sierra Leone

While this is my personal experience, I don’t think I’m alone. How many times have you switched channels when a charity ad with the sad looking child comes on, thinking “not another one”? Or thought to yourself, “have they been using the same pictures for the last 15 years?” When charities use guilt to sell they can do more harm than good. Drawing on negative emotions like guilt or using shock tactitcs can illicit a short-term response – but it won’t encourage an ongoing commitment to the cause. People don’t want to bombarded with negativity, guilt and images of suffering over and over again – because they’ll either want to ignore or and avoid it, or they’ll become immune to it. It also creates dangerous stereotypes about Africa and developing countries in general. Stereotypes are lazy and simplistic ways of thinking about people and places – and you miss out on the real complexity of the situation. It only shows one side of what’s going on, and never gives you the whole picture. But above all it strips people of their dignity, and that is something we will never do.

One Girl Sierra Leone

It’s for this exact reason that we will never use guilt to sell. If you read or watch something we’ve put out and you feel like you’ve just been guilted, or used, call us out on it!
We believe all charities need to be held to account and that doesn’t only include us, it also starts with us.
I’d love to hear your thoughts about using guilt and what you’d like to hear/see instead, leave them in the comments below.

Leave a Comment