The advertisement, which depicts a black child in the role of a dog (to make the point that some animals in South Africa are better fed than some children), drew widespread criticism.
Feed A Child South AfricaYouTube
A pretty blonde gives a crumb of food to a black child who sits begging by her feet.
That's one of the images in a fundraising video from the nonprofit group Feed a Child South Africa, which depicts the youngster in the role of a dog to make the point that some animals in South Africa are better fed than some children.
The video has now won an award — though it's a dubious honor.
Each year, a group in Norway gives the Rusty Radiator to the charitable fundraising video deemed most offensive or most stereotypical in its portrayal of the developing world, particularly Africa. Feed a Child is this year's winner (or loser).
The group that issues the award, the Norwegian Students' and Academics' International Assistance Fund, or SAIH, runs projects related to education and international development. Here's how it explains the rationale behind the award:
"For decades now, we've seen the same stereotypical images of Africa in both the media and in fund-raising campaigns. It reinforces the image of Africans as an 'exotic other.' We believe that these images create apathy, rather than action." To bolster its point, SAIH cites a study by Oxfam showing that 3 out of 4 people had become apathetic to images of hunger, drought and disease.
The SAIH statement goes on to say that many videos give people a warped view of both the causes of poverty and the best strategies to combat it:
"[The ads] are constantly feeding us to believe that we — the 'Westerners' — are the ones who can save the world ... without looking into the real reasons and structures which uphold an uneven world ... debt, responsible investments, worker rights, tax havens, climate politics, tourism and trade policies."
Discussing this year's pick, the judges wrote: "The poor are already depicted as incapable of their own rescue, now they are being compared to dogs. What next?"
Feed a Child later "retracted" the video (while noting that this is effectively impossible to do once a video has gone viral).
"We acknowledge the fact that the advert could be seen as insensitive or distasteful and we take heed to the fact that many perceived the advert as racist. This was most certainly not the intention, and again we apologise," says a statement on its website.
But a videotaped apology from the organization's president also defends the video, suggesting that it could have motivated people to donate money to a worthy cause.
Here's a runner-up video from Concern Worldwide, a U.K.-based aid organization:
The SAIH judges were not impressed by the video, which was shot in Chad. "What mother would put their suffering kid in the middle of the sun and just sit there? This is straight-up staged, with shocking images of children in HD," they wrote.
Radiator Award runner up was produced in Chad.
Concern Worldwide responded with an emailed statement from spokeswoman Sarah Molloy: "The footage used reflects the harsh reality of life for those people and for the 3 million children who died last year from hunger-related causes. We strongly feel we need to show a balance: some of the imagery we use is positive and some isn't."
SAIH doesn't just point the finger. It also celebrates videos that inspire people to give without resorting to cliched or potentially offensive images, through its Golden Radiator award. Here's this year's winner, from Save the Children, an international aid organization that focuses on childhood health.
The SAIH judges write: "You feel for the little girl as if she was someone you knew next door or your children went to school with. It emphasizes the universality of suffering and empathy, and breaks racial stereotypes about who suffers."
The awards are only in their second year but are already gaining steam. A mock video about volunteering in Africa, as well as this spoof in which Africans send radiators to Norway — both produced by SAIH — have been shared thousands of times on Facebook. And both organizations that I contacted about their Rusty Radiator awards were well aware of the dubious distinction.
All of this means a group of Norwegians just might be influencing the way we see the developing world.