Pity Charity: Why It Can Be Abusive to Children

Thursday, 21 November 2013 15:57 GMT

Credit: Hamed Saber / flickr

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Most people don’t realize that using “pity charity,” or putting poor children in promotional videos to raise money, can do them severe harm. If they come from an abusive situation, 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.”

And this disturbing practice is becoming more and more prevalent. Two news stories have recently emerged from Cambodia, where I am based: a renowned organization was again accused of faking stories used in international media to raise funds and awareness; and a local “orphanage” organized an auction of children’s photos and had them present them while their life-story was made public to heighten audience pity, and thus, sales.

These events are a direct consequence of the interconnected actions—knowing and unknowing—of some child protection organizations, the media, the donors, and the general public. Most want the best for these children, but instead, are turning them into victims.

As Friends-International has evolved over the years, we have strengthened our belief that using children in this way is wrong and have reinforced our child protection policies and media guidelines to reflect this. We try to employ a different approach: when we present our work, we talk about what we do and the results, and we provide background information without using real children telling their stories. The photos in the presentation are our staff acting, and this is not a secret. The stories we discuss are assembled from facts from different cases to draw attention to the general problem.

It is difficult to resist the visibility that can attract the funding we need to maintain programs that will provide the support these children and families so desperately need. Because of our stringent child protection policies and media guidelines, we generate less interest than many other organizations with high media visibility.

This said, we believe it is a small price to pay for integrity of practice and for providing children the protection they deserve, which is at the core of our mission.

So what is happening and what needs to change?

Child protection agencies are to blame. Their primary role 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. However, one must recognize that these organizations are trying to function and ensure a stream of income to provide services in an environment hungry for emotional stimulus.

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.

The current trend is “Tell stories!” This easily reinforces taking the short cut of having children tell their stories. We regularly have media teams coming to Friends-International, pushing for those kinds of stories—many boasting their own “child protection” policies, which they then disregard. The temptation to attract funding through this is high, but we refuse.

Donors play an integral role. As regulators of the money, it can be easy, if specific guidelines are not in place, to fund projects on an emotional basis. 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.

The general public’s opinion is being exacerbated by the explosion of social media. As we can now react immediately, there is less time to provide context and analysis for these stories before they go viral. Increasingly, people are invited to vote for the best projects that will get money: this can easily turn into a pity competition, where children become the victims. The money raised can indeed go to good projects, but at what expense?

So, what is the good news?

We are not the only organization reinforcing standards to protect children.

More organizations are establishing and enforcing stricter standards and we see donors starting to review their policies and practices. On social media, people are asking difficult questions. A movement has started and it needs to be nurtured by everyone.

How can you get involved?

First, say “no” to sensationalism. Look at what is really happening and the complexity of the issues involved. Be interested and not just emotionally driven. This requires often difficult behavior change. In many ways, the ball is in the donor’s (large and small) court. Donors should be leading, so that organizations do not feel compelled to distort truth to or (ab)use children to receive funding.

Ultimately, organizations must hold to their protection policies above all else. As more cases of abusive stories emerge, they discredit the entire child protection field; damage everyone’s work; and most alarmingly, harm the very children who were supposed to be protected.

Shifting attitudes is difficult, but it is the right and only thing to do.

Sebastien Marot is Executive Director of Friends-International.