The Framing of Poverty

As I haven’t posted for a while (blame dissertation), I thought I would spend today making some updates and writing a new post.

One of my final year modules is Political Psychology, which is a cross discipline study of behaviour, identity, character and groupings in politics. For a recent piece of coursework we had to undertake our own project, of 3000 words, on a topical issue of our choice. I decided to look at the framing (the way an issue is put across to try to activate a particular reaction in the audience) of global poverty in the UK. One of the most influential reports I used to help with the research was the Oxfam/DFID Finding Frames study (hyperlink within references).

It’s a great report, really interesting to read, with the overall conclusion that social mobilisation events such as Live Aid and Make Poverty History have actually had the opposite effect on mobilisation in the long term. Instead they have contributed to the ‘framing’ of global poverty which sees the West as a powerful giver, and the Rest as a grateful receiver. The final section has some relevant suggestions as to how different members of society, such as DFID itself, NGOs, charity shops and individuals, can go about making a difference to the way global poverty is recognised and understood in the UK.

My project follows on from this report, adding some important psychological theories (moral shocks, condensing symbols, compassion fatigue etc) which were absent from Finding Frames. I hope it provides an interesting, informative and inspiring read on a topic which deserves a lot more attention in the UK.

The Framing of Poverty

This project aims to identify how the UK public understands, recognises and reacts to global poverty. There is evidence that the next generation of potential supporters have already inherited a sense of fatalism and development fatigue. Public demand for change is crucially important and with a decline in activism in the UK there is a need for a shift in attitude. One way to achieve this could be through a realignment of dominant cultural values. Values are internal impulses which are embodied in emotion and have a profound effect on behavioural choice. Contrarily to traditional understanding, when it comes to an individual’s ability to make an informed decision, their internal values are as important as their understanding of the relevant facts.
Frames are constructs which activate and strengthen particular values (Crompton 2010). Taken from a psychological perspective, framing is a way of simplifying and condensing the world through selection (Snow and Benford, 2000). The phrase ‘global poor’ for example, has a dynamic frame attached to it which evokes ideas, feelings and values. Each frame will be unique to an individual, however due to the dominance of certain values within groups; similar cultures are more likely to have similar frames. The link between frames, values and political action has been argued extensively. Depending on the semantics used to describe the ‘global poor,’ different solutions will seem more or less logical (Crompton 2010). To enable the reform of public attitudes towards global poverty, there needs to be a realisation that unintentional negative values were embedded within previous campaign frames. These have been strengthened over time and are evident in UK society today.
This report will argue that language can awaken deep frames which promote certain values over others, and then continue to reinforce them through repeated activation. In the UK the current language of global poverty conjures images of famine, disease and desperate suffering in Africa. These images, or surface frames, activate deep frames such as the need for a free market, moral order and elite governance. Each frame endorses hidden values; consumerism, self-interest and authoritarianism. According to Darnton (2011) the main contributors towards the current state of public disengagement are the generation of the Live Aid event (1985) and the media with their stagnant depiction of global poverty. He argues that the coverage of Live Aid contributed to a framing of global poverty in a way which is conflicting to its intended aims of justice and freedom for all, and that it is regrettably still prevalent today.
The first section of the project will form an answer to the question ‘how are people encouraged to get involved in social movements?’ It will be argued the Live Aid event of 1985 was an example of a ‘moral shock’ (Jasper) which invoked certain values within the public. These values were stimulated with powerful images which helped create and embed a ‘framing’ of the understanding of global poverty in the minds of the British public. The second section will look at the challenges that this frame has created, including denial, guilt and political burnout. It will be suggested that the emotionally-shocking processes embedded within Live Aid, led to the inevitable rise of these problems. The final section will look at how frame and value realignment could help to stimulate a positive attitude towards global poverty alleviation in the UK. This is vital because the way in which we think about a political issue is an important determinant of whether political action will follow.

Live Aid and the embedding of values
  The 1985 Live Aid event can be considered as the defining moment of ‘Charity Rock;’ the merging of international superstars with humanitarian politics. It was universally recognised, heavily broadcasted and widely criticised (Garofalo, 2005, 325). The concert raised over £60million for famine relief in Ethiopia, but in reality did little to solve the problem of famine in Africa (Westley, 1991).What it did achieve was an effective analogy between the consumption of music and the plight of the hungry. At a symbolic level, certain images became part of the global consciousness, just as music is considered a universal language. Images of starving Ethiopian children became engrained into the minds of the public, and have been associated with famine and poverty ever since.
Jasper and Poulsen (1995) looked in detail at how people get involved in social movements. They suggested that a single event could be a trigger to escalate a movement to the front of the public agenda. Live Aid was an example of a moral shock; a highly publicised event which mobilised people towards political action through the manipulation of anger and outcry. Jasper proposed that the most effective shocks are those which can be recognised with powerful images; he termed these as condensing symbols (pp498). In the case of global poverty condensing symbols include images of famine, disaster and western aid on an extremely emotive level. These stereotype people in the developing world as helpless victims, setting in place a one-sided relationship model. This biased view assumes that the West has nothing to gain from its relationship with developing countries; the West is the powerful giver and the developing world is the grateful receiver. This perception limits the capacity of the UK to learn from different cultures and there is evidence that it has led to enhanced racial tension, embedded stereotyping and a negative attitude towards immigration in the UK (VSO 2002).
It is clear that the effects of Live Aid were, whilst limited internationally, far reaching for domestic attitude and opinion. Subsequent Make Poverty History (2005) was intended to reframe some of the values which were invoked during the 1980’s; however Darnton (2011) suggests that this was not successful. During the campaign, levels of public concern rose from 25-32% (Darnton, 2011a). It was a spectacular success in terms of universal awareness; almost 90% of UK public had heard of the movement and could recognise its logo. However, its message of ‘justice not charity’ went unheard as the dominant meaning frames embedded throughout the previous two decades overwhelmed the message. As soon as the concert was over and the wrist bands went out of fashion, levels of public concern fell back to previous figures.
Since Live Aid there has been a fluctuation in levels of public willingness to challenge global poverty. In the 21st Century, figures have fallen substantially and are now at their lowest recorded levels. In 2009 the number of ‘actively enthusiastic’ persons fell from 21-14%, whilst in 2011 just 24% of the public reported that they were ‘very concerned’ with the state of poverty (Darnton, 2011). One problem that this decline could lead to is outlined by Darnton (2011). He suggests that as the public provide the UK government with a mandate for spending on overseas aid, if public concern falls, then the budget will have to be reduced. Clearly a cut in the overseas aid budget would make it difficult for people relying on UKaid to escape from global poverty. It would also lead to a further decline in understanding, recognition and reaction to global poverty within the UK, as there would be less money being spent on campaigns and agenda setting. This can be seen as an example of a negative feedback effect, and is a substantial problem.
Henson et al (2010) evaluated the results of a survey into attitudes by the British public towards global poverty. Out of the 185 people questioned, 115 of them said that their main access to knowledge came through the media; television, news, radio and the internet. Respondents felt unsatisfied with the quality of the reporting, many suggesting that appeals were deliberatively emotive or bias towards a particular outcome. However, there was little to no attempt by the respondents to supplement their knowledge from other sources. This shows that there is a nationwide gap between knowledge, understanding and action towards alleviating global poverty. This will be examined further in section three; the next section will look in more detail at other challenges presented by the current global poverty frame.

The challenges of the Live Aid frame
Other problems are more complex, and have a more psychological dimension. The previous section suggested that the majority of people in the UK continue to associate their understanding of the developing world with the images which they saw during Live Aid. When the UK public think of development and the developing world, Africa is their starting point (VSO, 2002). As little has really been achieved to eradicate global poverty, or at least, there is little portrayal of success in the media, the powerful feelings of guilt and anger which Live Aid aroused in the public, faded quickly. The continued use of powerfully emotive symbols, alongside a decreasing climate of anger and mobilisation contributed to an overall disengagement by the public. Denial and fatigue began to rise, replacing the previous abiding affects of anger and hope which encouraged participation within the social movement.
Relating this back to the challenges of framing; the feelings, ideas and values which Live Aid accelerated did not have the depth of moral engagement needed to disturb people from their chosen lifestyle. Theorists have suggested that the increase of a cultural of denial, developed from a sharp decline in public anger and guilt, have led to an increase in motivational burnout. Each of these ideas will now be considered in turn.
Denial is understood as an unconscious mechanism for coping with guilt, anxiety or other disturbing emotions aroused by reality (Cohen, 2001). Cohen argues that denial can be split into three categories; literal, interpretive or implicatory. In terms of global poverty, literal denial, or the assertion that something did not happen, is minimal, as most people acknowledge that global suffering is as much a feature of contemporary society as it was during the 1980s. Interpretive denial is also not really applicable, famine is famine and the majority of the Western world would understand the basic premises of its consequences without a great deal of differentiation. However, the notion of implicatory denial is key. In general, the public make no attempt to deny the existence of global poverty, yet its psychological, political and moral implications are minimized. In the Western world, people can literally switch off access to scenes of visible suffering in the same way in which our unconscious minds can.
Gross (2008) attempts to explain how different types of framing produce different appeals. A particular emotional response may depend upon how an issue is framed, and in politics this is an important theory. She notes that the differences between episodic and thematic frames are important within persuasive appeals. She suggests that episodic or ‘one person appeals’ are more likely to create a strong, emotional response in its audience than thematic ones set in a broader context. In other words, the use of an intimate plea, rather than a description of numbers or facts, is more likely to elicit a strong emotional reaction. Other studies go further, suggesting that appeals which focus directly on the plight of one person elicit the primary responses of pity and guilt in the viewer. Pity, as opposed to empathy or compassion, embraces the negative assumption of biased relationship. One feels pity when they are not faced with the same position themselves. Guilt is even more unconstructive as, as an internal conscience impulse, it has a short shelf life. It can quickly lead to emotional exhaustion, motivational burnout and development fatigue.
Darnton (2011b) claims that the most common response in the UK towards global poverty alleviation is as follows; “All we can do is give money, and even that probably won’t reach the people for whom it is intended.” This transaction-style model of public engagement has come about through subsequent attempts at Charity Rock including ‘Live8’ and ‘Make Poverty History.’ These events had unintentionally embedded values which worked against the semantics of the cause. As mentioned in section one, the slogan ‘justice not charity’ went largely unheard. To develop a broader understanding of its failure there needs to be a deeper analysis of the values the campaign invoked. Crompton (2010) suggested that it is not just language or rhetoric which recalls deep frames, other aspects of our lived experience can activate and strengthen them. For Charity Rock, the use of popular celebrities invoked individualistic consumer values, which rallied only short term mobilisation. The use of simplistic messages such as ‘Make Poverty History’ and ‘End World Hunger’ facilitated unsolvable slogans and embedded disempowering worldviews. The mass production of wristbands was simply a fashion craze to UK teenagers. The embedded values of self-interest, moral order and consumerism proved overpowering.
Linked to this argument is the realisation that Live Aid and Make Poverty History strongly implied money was the overarching solution to global poverty. However, despite millions of pounds being raised, over a quarter of a century later there is still widespread poverty, negative news reporting and calls for donations and funding. The lack of success of Charity Rock, international aid and humanitarian politics has led to motivational burnout and frustration from the UK public (Darnton, 2011). People have ‘switched off’ from global poverty because they have come to believe that there is little they can do to make a difference.

The need for realignment
Public support for development can be described as being a mile wide and an inch deep (Hudson and vanHeerde-Hudson, 2012). One way of explaining this quote could be to look into the debate over the selfish nature of human beings. A relevant theory that has developed, attracting a lot of controversy, called Compassion Fatigue. Kinnick et al (1996) outlined its basic reason d’être, suggesting that contemporary media coverage may have contributed to an emotional fatigue in society when dealing with ‘bigger-than-self’ problems. According to Tester (2001) compassion fatigue consists of a society so used to the spectacle of dreadful events, misery or suffering that they stop noticing them. “We are bored when we see one more tortured corpse on the television screen and we are left unmoved” (pp 31).
Moeller (1999) argued that in the eighties the public could focus on one international catastrophe at a time, as there wasn’t the means of projecting the vastness of global poverty or the intensity of extreme events. In 1984 the BBC broadcasted a videotape of skeletal Ethiopian children, dying as the camera rolled, galvanizing public sympathy, anger and outcry against famine; “How could we have let this happen.” However, subsequent famine in Africa has not achieved the same press. Moeller suggested that this was because journalists had already reported on the tragedy, celebrities had already thrown benefit concerts and the public had already donated generously;“People must have the feeling of African famine again?” (pp2).
In complete contrast to Moeller and Tester, there is mounting evidence that empathy is also inherent in human nature (Crompton  2010). Self-interest is not the only value which people strive for, social cohesion and support is also apparent. With the recent recognition that reasoning does not have to be separated from emotion, new understandings of human empathy and apathy are emerging. Hoijer (2004), in response to Moeller, argued that there are two sides to public attitude towards global poverty; compassion on the one hand, and compassion fatigue on the other. She suggests that images in the media may actually invite moral compassion and activism, providing that they are accompanied by an outline of the causes and consequences.
Indeed, the nature of compassion fatigue assumes that compassion was at one time present; defining it not as a negative factor of human nature, but as a state of cultural understanding in which the general public feel they are unable to do anything to help. If it is possible that people lost motivation to join the social movement to eradicate global poverty because they felt that they could not achieve anything, what could be done to reinvigorate enthusiasm?
Firstly, there needs to be a bridging of the gap between knowledge, understanding and action when it comes to public attitudes towards global poverty. This is the gap between knowing about poverty, understanding its causes and consequences, and taking concrete action to begin its alleviation. In a survey conducted by the VSO (2002), the researchers noted that the people questioned did not hesitate when explaining their views and opinions on global poverty. They did not seek reassurance of their own opinions despite often stating the complexity of the challenges ahead. This suggests that the UK public are knowledgeable of the existence of global poverty but that there is a gap between this knowledge and a true understanding of the causes and consequences of it. Without a developed understanding, there will be less willingness to act.
To successfully build a bridge between knowledge and action, the previous sections detailing frame and value theory comes into play. Understanding the difference between surface frames such as “poverty”, “charity” and “aid,” and deep frames including ‘elite governance,’ ‘moral order’ and ‘free market,’ is vital. Surface frames can be understood to be words, phrases or slogans which activate and strengthen deep meaning frames (Lakoff, 1990). The deep meaning frame created by Live Aid and strengthened through condensing symbols, transactional models and the culture of guilt, reflects the one sided relationship model mentioned previously – The West as the Powerful Giver and the developing world as the Grateful Receiver.
Oxfam, DFID, the WWF and others have all began to argue for the need for a shift in the language of global poverty. They argue that the words “charity,” “aid” and “development” must be replaced with expressions such as “movement,” “partnership” and “justice,” because as surface frames they awaken the stagnant deep frame carried by Live Aid. A shift away from the values of self-interest and hierarchical relationships underpinned in the dominant frames of the ‘free market’ and ‘elite governance,’ would allow for a shift away from the Live Aid understanding of global poverty. Darnton (2011) suggests frames of ‘participatory democracy,’ ‘shared prosperity’ and the ‘embodied mind,’ are more likely to elicit an empathetic response from the UK public.
Basing future campaigns on new values, rather than the dominant ‘Live Aid inspired’ frame, could allow for a reduction of the one-sided relationship model which currently stands in the path of future development. Bridging the gap between knowledge, action and understanding would enhance the agency of the UK public, and could increase motivation to join social movements. Finally, increasing public belief that they are able to undertake an action to tackle poverty, and it will have a successful outcome, is key to breaking the current culture of fatigue.

Word Count- 3090


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Darnton, A. (2011a) Finding Frames: New Ways to Engage the UK public in global poverty [online] Available from: [Accessed 20/03/2012].

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Hoijer, B. (2004) The discourse of global compassion: the audience and media reporting of human suffering. Media Culture and Society [online] 26(4). pp 513- 531.

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Kinnick, K., Krugman, D., and Cameron, G. (1996) Compassion Fatigue: Communication and Burnout toward Social Problems. Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly [online] 73(3). pp. 687-707.

Lakoff, G. (1990) Women, Fire and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal about the Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

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Westley, F. (1991) Bob Geldof and Live Aid: The Affective Side of Global Social Innovation. Human Relations[online]44(10). pp. 1011-1036.


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