Where charity meets opportunity

There’s a photograph of a politician sharing a fast food meal with a shirtless, shabby-looking man on a footbridge. He shared it on his Facebook page.

Several photographs showing him helping the downtrodden recently appeared on his FB feed.

One depicted him helping a shirtless elderly man who had been sleeping on the sidewalk for six months.

The politician bought the man breakfast, took him clothes shopping, and got him a haircut. The politician accompanied him for a medical check-up and paid for the repair of his motorcycle. He even got the man a job as a security guard and paid for a rented home.

Bravo to the politician for changing the lives of the man and others he helped.

The photographs of his charity allude to the politician being berjiwa rakyat (people-orientated) and caring about the welfare of the downtrodden.

However, some question his generosity.

Is the politician exploiting the poor to enrich himself politically?

Those with sangkaan jahat (evil suspicion) wonder why he has a social media team documenting the “photo opportunity” of his charity.

This has also spurred the debate of whether the politician was engaging in poverty porn.

What’s poverty porn? According to The Borgen Project, which is a non-profit organisation that fights extreme poverty, the term is difficult to define.

“But it seeks to identify exploitative images that strive to be as horrifying and pitiful as possible in order to shock the viewer into feeling sympathy and oftentimes making a donation. Sometimes photographers may even stage subjects, positioning them to look particularly poor and helpless in order to capture a specifically desired image, ” Jessica Blatt wrote in borgenproject.org.

“This type of photography is not only one-dimensional, but it is dangerous. Poverty porn creates a culture of paternalism and objectification that paints the viewers as saviours and reduces the poor down to their struggles.”

The equivalent cliché is the starving African child with a bloated stomach. This type of image is used by unethical charity bodies to evoke guilt, pity or shame, and aims to encourage the public to donate to the cause.

Jorgen Lissner, the author of The Politics of Altruism, pointed out that there was “no denying that the starving child image has been helpful in opening a lot of people’s eyes to the harsh realities of the world in which we live.”

“A substantial number of the advertisers will insist nothing can beat the starving child when it comes to ‘profitability’ and that this approach is a necessity to ensure the cash will keep rolling in and keep the aid agencies in operation. But a growing minority have serious doubts about this approach, which they see as both unethical and counter-productive in the long run, ” Lissner said.

So, was the Malaysian politician engaged in poverty porn? It’s a matter of perspective, really, but his critics believe the photographs were posed shots.

Should he perform charity anonymously or publicise it on social media? Why did he trumpet his charity? Was it to highlight poverty in the country? Or was it for political mileage?

These questions were asked about a Malaysian philanthropist who plays Santa Claus throughout the year.

He helped a family of five – living in their car for eight months – by getting them a rented three-bedroom house and bought them new electrical appliances. And the media glorified his generosity.

The debate on Facebook is whether he should have donated without the media circus.

Some argue that he was inspiring others to contribute to the less fortunate. And some believe the philanthropist had to publicise his deed so that donors know their money was put to good use.

Some argue that “genuine” charity should be done quietly as the giver is doing it from his/her heart, and not for the sake of publicity. Some theorise that there are crooked people who make huge donations to buy a good image. A Macau scammer, who donated 11 million face masks, comes to mind.

The term for those who exploit the dire situation of the downtrodden is “poverty pimp”. Now, that’s surely food for thought.

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