Painting Pictures of Poverty

by | Nov 12, 2008

It’s Oxfam. Again. Some people have been a little confused about our ‘attacks’ on Oxfam. Why would we want to criticise nice people who are trying to do good?

We are interested in the ideas which Oxfam use to understand and explain the problems they hope to answer. Intending to good is one thing. The ideas being to put into practice are another. Here is an example of bad ideas in action,

Oxfam America is proud to participate in an exciting project bringing together artists and activists from around the world, each doing their part to illustrate how climate change is affecting poor communities right now.

Oxfam America’s Climate Change on Canvas project commissioned the following picture by ‘painting activist’, Ashley Cecil.

Announcing the completion of the commission, the groups website informs that,

“I realized that farming is hard these days because of changing temperatures, but it’s often the sole survival for people in rural areas,” says Cecil. “It’s hard to feed a family when you can’t farm.” This struggle inspired one of the painting’s most striking elements: the long trail of dust that streams from one woman’s empty bowl. “I wanted to show that the women are not harvesting crops the way they had hoped,” Cecil explains. “They’re holding a bowl of dust, because this is what they’re left with—burnt, dry dust, dry branches… In other words, what we’d expect to see is not there.”

It is a shame that oil paintings do not carry a bibliography of the research they cite. As we pointed out previously, Oxfam’s claim that climate change is driving the poor in Bangladesh ‘further into poverty’ is not born out by the statistics which show steady increases in agricultural production, yields per hectare, GDP per capita, in spite of climate change.

She believes that Americans need to do more to tackle the crisis, even if it’s just by making small changes to their lifestyle. “The first piece is education,” she says. “Whether it’s though statistics, words, or images—whatever turns on that light bulb for someone, and makes them act.”

It’s hard to understand how a painting explains how a ‘small change in lifestyle’ will positively influence the lives of the world’s rural poor. It won’t hydrate the contents of the women’s bowls. It won’t irrigate their fields.

Cecil continues on her own website.

Oxfam America is just one of many Oxfam International affiliates who will be creating canvases for this project. Similar works of art will travel from all over the world—created by professional artists, unknown artists and members of developing communities—to be exhibited at the UN conference, representing a unified global movement around climate change and poverty. This piece will go to Poland and come back to the US where Oxfam plans to use art as a mobilization tool around climate change in 2009.

‘Art as a mobilization tool’? Just as both Oxfam and Cecil fail to explain how small adjustments to lifestyles are equivalent to a gift of fertility to the soils tended by the poor, they fail to explain how an image can create a positive engagement with a political idea. Can images do that? How?

Images such as Cecil’s don’t’ ask us to understand the complex economic, social and political interactions throughout the world, and how and why the poor are excluded from them. They only ask us to respond to the image emotionally. We are supposed to feel the women’s pain. But in asking ‘how can we make it better?’, we are only really asking how we can make ourselves feel better, so that we can feel and be less guilty. That’s the limitation of ‘art’ depicting poverty as a tool of ‘mobilization’ (manipulation), because that is the limitation of emotional engagement with images.

Cecil and Oxfam are keen to tell you how to make yourself feel better, nonetheless. It’s those ‘small changes to lifestyle’ (though many are urging ‘drastic action’) that are your salvation. Plus, no doubt, a small contribution payable monthly by standing order.

Back to the criticism of our criticism of Oxfam…

It is our belief that Oxfam’s increasingly shallow campaigns reflect the organisation’s difficulty in understanding development and poverty, and the relationship between them. In other words, it seems to have lost its purpose. This is a reflection of a wider political phenomenon, of which the predominance of environmentalism is a symptom. We seem to have forgotten why we wanted development in the first place. It is as if the lifestyles depicted in Cecil’s painting were to be aspired to, were there just a little more rain. Development is a bad thing. It stops rain.

If we were to add a city skyline into the background of Cecil’s painting it might ask a very different question of its audience. Why are people living like that, with such abundance in such proximity? Of course, in reality, many miles separate the two women from any such city, but the question still stands; there is abundance in the world, and there is the potential for plenty more. Yet Oxfam have absorbed the idea from the environmental movement that there isn’t abundance. This changes the relationship between development and poverty from one in which development creates abundance into one in which development creates poverty; it deprives people of subsistence. But really, the city (not) behind the two women could organise the infrastructure necessary to irrigate the parched landscape, the delivery of fertiliser, and a tractor. The field could be in full bloom, in spite of the weather. The two women could be wealthy.

Oh no, says Oxfam. That’s not sustainable.

Why should ‘sustainability’ be Oxfam’s concern? If, as we discussed in the last post, pits full of human excrement are an immediate end to the problems of poverty, why not have an ‘unsustainable’ solution to the immediate problem of poverty? And so on to the next ‘unsustainable’ form of development. And the next. And the next. And the next. Few of us still burn wood in our houses for heat. Yet we didn’t run out of wood. Unsustainable developments on top of unsustainable developments has made the world more sustainable. The process is sustainable, even if the mode at any given instant isn’t.

Oxfam seem to be making a role for themselves where they are able to dictate a mode of existence which is ‘sustainable’. This is a departure from the arrangement in which they were a means to an ends – solving poverty. Now, it seems, the means is the ends. Oxfam’s very purpose seems to be to purpetuate itself – it’s focus on development sacrificied for its own sustainability, the poverty it is responding to increasingly its own intellectual vacuity.A behemoth, searching the dark for its own purpose.

The myth of sustainability is that it is sustainable. The truth is that drought and famine have afflicted the rural poor throughout history – before climate change was ever used to explain the existence of poverty. Limiting development to what ‘nature’ provides therefore makes people vulnerable to her whims. Drought is ‘natural’. Famine is ‘natural’. Disease is ‘natural’. They are all mechanisms which, in the ecologist’s lexicon are nature’s own way of ensuring ‘sustainability’. They are checks and balances on the dominance of one species. To absorb what Hitler called ‘the iron logic of nature’ is to submit to injustice, if famine, drought and disease characterise it. We can end poverty, but not by restricting development. Yet that seems to be Oxfam’s intention. That is why we criticise it.


  1. Lee Jones

    Surely there’s a more fundamental critique here, which is that even the IPCC recognises that climate change will cause agricultural yields in Africa and elsewhere to *increase*. I also wonder how many “airmiles” Cecil’s pointless painting will acquire as it is jetted around the globe to shame guilty liberals.

  2. Editors

    Hi Lee,

    The fact that Oxfam’s statements are out of kilter with the science it seemingly cites almost goes without saying. Oxfam are issuing it faster than we can read it. Such are the benefits of having $750,000,000 a year to spend.

    We won’t ever catch up.

    Previous posts have been about Oxfam’s use of science to make it’s arguments. And we’re working on a bigger one in the near future. This post was intended to answer criticism that we’re not being straightforward about why we are criticising Oxfam. As I’m sure you’ll agree, and can explain better than us, the problem with Oxfam isn’t simply the liberties they are taking with science.

  3. geoff chambers

    Even worse than the feelgood efforts of Western artists are the clips of third world artists being encouraged by Oxfam to express their opposition to global warming, to be seen on To me this seems about as enlightened as getting subjects of the British Raj to recite Kipling.
    Art of the kind you show is perhaps simply harmless therapy for the mildly deluded. But when Oxfam proudly show clips of third world citizens parroting the global warming litany as examples of the good they’re doing, one sees the real scope for harm. Oxfam are there on the ground, able to influence public opinion. They’re doing the same job as green teachers here, except they’re indoctrinating adults in an environment with less access to alternative news sources. I hope you manage to engage Oxfam in a real dialogue about this.
    Incidentally, there’s a nice scene in one of Doris Lessing’s novels about development v. environment. The heroine and her friends, all young white idealists, members of the African Communist Party, are picnicing on the slopes of Kilimanjaro, admiring the idyllic unspoilt landscape, and one of them says: “I suppose if we get our way, one day all this will be covered with council housing”. And the heroine replies “Yes, I suppose it will.”

  4. Robert Wood

    Aaarrgghhh! Sustainability. I hate the word and concept. It’s not clear the universe is sustainable, and certainly the solar system isn’t

    Therefore, development of the human race is the only way to spread the Earth life-forms around the galaxy, making it “more sustainable”. That is truly “Saving the Planet”

  5. Alex Cull

    All good points. Additionally, I find it unfortunate that Oxfam are expending resources on, and drumming up publicity for, such nebulous and contentious issues as “environmental justice”, when there are rather more pressing matters to address, such as the current dire situation in the Congo. To be fair, they are providing help and scaling up their efforts in eastern Congo, which is commendable, and is what Oxfam and similar agencies do best – disaster relief, basically. But I find it a bit disappointing that with a real emergency on their hands, so much time, money and effort is still being wasted on the fight against “greenhouse gas pollution”. On Oxfam’s American site, click on “Join a Campaign” and what is at the top of the list? Well, naturally – “Climate Change.” I think “Help Stop Destructive Tribal Conflicts” might be more appropriate, given the circumstances.

  6. Stefano Mori

    In reality the world is a very abundant place, full of resources that we just haven’t figured out how to use yet, like how we turn common sand into microchips.

    In the previous thread, Talisker referred to an article on which attacked people’s materialistic values, and the need to replace these with something more “caring”.

    I think this is why it is so difficult to talk to environmentalists about “sustainability”. If we could demonstrate that resources are not running out, we would still be rejected because we would be implying that it is OK to keep consuming. The typical environmentalists want us to change and give up the materialistic lifestyle, they want us to change and become people who are more interested in other things, like human harmony.

    I’ve talked to my enviro friends, and at the end of the discussion, when we’ve got to the point where we can all agree that we are NOT running out of resources, I get the reply, “yes but can’t we just all slow down anyway, to a simpler quieter life of community?”

    And my reply is, that’s fine for you dear, if that’s the life you’d like. Go ahead and arrange your own life so that you can have that lifestyle now. Nobody is asking you to be a fatcat businessman, instead find something that suits you, like you could go become a counsellor and work with relationships and care.

    But let’s not assume that future generations are all going to feel the same way as you; many of them will be just as interested in acquiring materialistic stuff and technologies–an NMR medical scanner in every clinic, being able to travel round the world at Mach 8, access to and use of 10 times the amount of energy we use today, sophisticated robotics tech in every home–and it is not our call to say they should not have that. How would we have liked it if previous generations had decided that the internet consumed too much power and we should stick with a simpler, slower, quieter pace ? Letters delivered by bicycle?

    As Westerners, we’ve done our intensive materialist pursuit for a few centuries, and created reasonably comfortable lives for ourselves. So it is easy to say, well, let’s slow down, let’s look after the trees more, let’s improve the air. The rest of the world has yet gain materialistic satisfaction, and as we see with India, they will not sacrifice development for climate change.

  7. jabailo

    Actually, global warming or not, precipitation in the Sahara is increasing and it’s potentially one gigantic farm with a bit more water.

  8. John Galt

    I think you’ve all got it wrong. What I see in the painting is third world insecticide application.

  9. T. Greer

    Art as a mobilization tool’? Just as both Oxfam and Cecil fail to explain how small adjustments to lifestyles are equivalent to a gift of fertility to the soils tended by the poor, they fail to explain how an image can create a positive engagement with a political idea. Can images do that? How?

    I am reminded of the satirical blog, Stuff White People Like and their take on such mobilization tools:

    An interesting fact about white people is that they firmly believe that all of the world’s problems can be solved through “awareness.” Meaning the process of making other people aware of problems, and then magically someone else like the government will fix it.

    This belief allows them to feel that sweet self-satisfaction without actually having to solve anything or face any difficult challenges. Because, the only challenge of raising awareness is people not being aware. In a worst case scenario, if you fail someone doesn’t know about the problem. End of story.

    What makes this even more appealing for white people is that you can raise “awareness” through expensive dinners, parties, marathons, selling t-shirts, fashion shows, concerts, eating at restaurants and bracelets. In other words, white people just have to keep doing stuff they like, EXCEPT now they can feel better about making a difference.

    Raising awareness is also awesome because once you raise awareness to an acceptable, aribtrary level, you can just back off and say “Bam! did my part. Now it’s your turn. Fix it.”

    So to summarize – you get all the benefits of helping (self satisfaction, telling other people) but no need for difficult decisions or the ensuing criticism (how do you criticize awareness?). Once again, white people find a way to score that sweet double victory.

    Popular things to be aware of: The Environment, Diseases like Cancer and AIDS, Africa, Poverty, Anorexia, Homophobia, Midde School Field Hockey/Lacrosse teams, Drug Rehab, and political prisoners.

    Obviously the “White people” reffered to here are not the entire race, but the more specific youngish, liberal, multiculturalist types that are the lifeblood of the environmental movement.

    ~T. Greer, noting that SWPL also has a funny post on recycling as well.

  10. TDK

    I think there’s an element of the “noble savage” in these ideas. A generation has grown up accepting uncritically the ideas of orientalism. They assume that their white predecessors universally viewed the third world as primitive and inferior and in reaction go to the opposite extreme and idealise it or, at the very least, disdain from describing any element as inferior. Universalism is a white European conceit.

  11. Technomist

    I saw Agitprop.

    My wife saw a pair of models. She grew up amid real poverty.

  12. George Carty

    @Stefano Mori

    Isn’t it extremely difficult to live simply these days, because while the price of food and most other goods has decreased relative to incomes, the price of housing has increased?

    This is because many voters who already own homes (especially in marginal constituencies) want house prices to be high (Mark Wadsworth coined the term “Home-Owner-Ists” for such people), and have sought to ensure this by obstructing the construction of new homes, even in the face of mass immigration.

    Another factor may also be the fact that MPs can buy second homes for themselves with taxpayers’ money, giving them a vested interest in high house prices.

    Ironically, the Home-Owner-Ists often excuse their greedy NIMBYism on the pretext of “protecting the Green Belt”.

    Perhaps an attack on Home-Owner-Ism (through the building of lots more council houses, or through the introduction of a Land Value Tax and reduction of other taxes to compensate) could allow people to work less and restore some of the lost sense of community.

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