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Why Are We Still Watching Poverty Porn?

03/04/2014 10:21 BST | Updated 02/06/2014 10:59 BST

Last year my Dad turned 63, and he's what you'd call a classic East-end boy. A builder all his life, he's got an opinion on everything, and he loves a good moan. That's why having a son who campaigns against extreme poverty is something he really struggles with, and the reason is pretty simple. Every night, when we sit down in front of the television, the inevitable adverts pop up. That generic charity appeal that makes the room go silent, where a small, semi-naked, helpless child crawls across our television screens and the only thing we can do is awkwardly squirm or hope that our satellite box has enough minutes to fast forward.

Then comes the inevitable voice of my Dad. "This is what I mean Bill, I've told you a million times, things are never going to change. It's been like this for the past 40 years, and it's going to be like this for the next 100." Who can argue with him? For years, charities have beamed these pictures into our living rooms and told us what's going on in Africa and all around the world: people are dying, and you need to give us your money.

Well, that's not the full story, and frankly, charities are making it near impossible to make anyone care about extreme poverty. Take Save the Children's latest highly controversial advert entitled the "First Day." The advert depicts T-Girl, a Liberian mother, struggling to give birth to her son, Melvin. Once Melvin is born, T-Girl convulses on her bed as her baby son lays lifeless on the table. Thirty pain-staking seconds later, a slightly blue Melvin takes his first gasp for breath, and a text number to donate £5 flashes up.

It's poverty porn. We've all seen it, those demeaning and often graphic images that our charities can't get enough of. But, while Save the Children may believe they're creating mass sympathy, they're actually creating mass apathy and a feeling of helplessness. As a campaigner, I'm often at music festivals, universities, and local gatherings talking to people about what they can do to help end extreme poverty. If I haven't been completely ignored, then I normally get a glazed look. What can I do? Have you not seen those pictures? Or that news report about the war, famine, or disaster?

The problem seems insolvable, but it's not. To quote the late and great Nelson Mandela at a Make Poverty History rally in 2005, "like Slavery and Apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings." So, what's standing in our way? Apathy. Apathy which is consistently reinforced by the negative and false images of Africa and the world that we see every tea-time on charity appeals.

Today, extreme poverty has been halved in the last twenty years. In the last decade, six out of ten of the fastest growing economies have been in Africa. Disease cases of Polio have been reduced by 99%, and malaria by 45%. Why are we not talking about this? Why aren't the adverts, which we all dread, not telling us about these incredible, heart-warming facts? Our television screens have built an image of Africa based on misery and heart-breaking stories in the name of money, ignoring the progress and joy that sweeps an entire continent.

So, let me put myself in the shoes of Save the Children's Marketing Director. My "First Day" would be different. While child mortality is a real issue in Liberia, incredible things are happening in a country which is still recovering from a brutal civil war. According to the World Health Organisation, in the last ten years the government's expenditure on health has increased by 407%. Maternal mortality rates have fallen by 30% and the price of treatment in hospitals has halved. Take away those sensationalised images, and you're left with a real story of hope. That's the story I want to hear, the issue I want to donate to, and the story I want to tell the man or woman on the street. Anyway, it might just save me from getting an earful from my Dad.