World Food Programme pulls COVID-19 fundraising images after backlash

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Photo by: World Food Programme via Forecast-Based Financing / CC BY-NC-ND

BRUSSELS — The World Food Programme says photos of aid recipients in a top-performing fundraising drive have been pulled after a strong reaction on social media.

One of the images depicted an apparently malnourished child screaming while receiving care. Another showed a young child with a vacant expression salivating profusely.

In both cases, accompanying text read: “URGENT: the coronavirus emergency threatens the delivery of vital food assistance to nearly 100 million hungry people. Help us continue our life-saving work.”

The controversial campaign began on April 9 on the Facebook Audience Network, which shows ads on Facebook as well as other mobile apps and websites, and on television in Spain and South Korea, a WFP spokesperson told Devex by email. The images featuring small children were primarily from South Sudan, Yemen, and Ethiopia.

On Facebook, reactions were mixed. “Wtf that photo is beyond frightening thought this was for a horror film or something,” one user wrote in the comments section beneath the ad. “You make me sick spreading picture like this to get people to give…” another posted. A third commented in French that “it is not because they are poor that they don’t have the right to respect.”

Others disagreed. “Just gave 20 euros for this a minute ago. No more comments necessary other than please do it as well,” one Facebook user wrote.

“I think [aid organizations] should be aware of how harmful these images are.”

— Selasie Djameh, filmmaker

The WFP spokesperson told Devex that “this has been our best performing fundraising appeal which demonstrates that there can be many responses to the same creative content. Some people find it inspirational and it motivates them to become committed supporters to the organisation.”

However, they later added that “WFP has taken a decision to suspend use of any material that uses images of beneficiaries while it undertakes a review of the campaign.”

Asked how much the campaign had cost WFP and how much it had generated in donations, the spokesperson wrote only that the agency applies a formula across all its campaigns of spending 22.5 cents to raise $1.

The spokesperson said that WFP owns the rights to the images and that parents or guardians of all the children involved gave their consent. “Consent is always required by WFP for use of images for fundraising purposes and these guidelines were strictly followed in this case,” the spokesperson wrote.

Selasie Djameh, a filmmaker from Ghana, tweeted about the campaign, saying in a post last month that “In 2020 organisations like @WFP need to STOP using images like these which are not only disturbing, but strip the dignity of the vulnerable people they are trying to help and reinforce stereotypes. This is NOT okay.”

Djameh told Devex over Skype this week that images of poor Africans remained the first reference point that people overseas have of her whenever she leaves the country. “I think [aid organizations] should be aware of how harmful these images are,” she said. “I know that U.N. agencies have policies on the dignity of vulnerable people that they depict, so I was very, very surprised to see [the WFP campaign].”

Asked about what ethical guidelines WFP applied in this case, the spokesperson responded that it “tries to strike a balance between portraying the graphic impact of hunger, while maintaining the dignity of subjects featured in external content. WFP is always mindful of feedback it receives in relation to its fundraising campaigns and remains flexible to review and adapt content, if necessary.”

By contrast, Djameh said that when she worked for a British organization on a project about girls’ education last year, she was impressed by the way the subjects were encouraged to speak freely, without a script.

“Part of the documentary project was to train the girls on how to film their own little blogs on their cellphones so that that could be added to the documentary,” Djameh said. “I felt like that gave them more agency to tell what they wanted to tell, show what they wanted to show.”

Research indicates that such images make members of the public less likely to believe they can make a difference in global crises, according to Molly Anders, research impact and engagement lead for the Development Engagement Lab at University College London.

In an email to Devex, she said a 2017 survey found that these kinds of images “not only elicit fewer donations than more positive, empowering imagery, but they may also have played a part in exacerbating donor fatigue.”

“This is likely because these negative images, used over and over again, have reinforced feelings of helplessness among the public and deprived them of a sense of collective progress, making them less likely to donate in the future,” Anders added.

About the author

  • Vince Chadwick

    Vince Chadwick is the Brussels Correspondent for Devex. He covers the EU institutions, member states, and European civil society. A law graduate from Melbourne, Australia, he was social affairs reporter for The Age newspaper, before moving to Europe in 2013. He covered breaking news, the arts and public policy across the continent, including as a reporter and editor at POLITICO Europe.