Poverty Journalism

It has been repeated often: journalists will have to fight for Millennium Development Goal (MDG) coverage. Despite poverty’s richness as a news topic, the degree of coverage is not yet adequate to keep governments and NGOs on track in their undertaking to reduce poverty.

Part of the problem also lies in how journalists are covering MDG issues, which include a wide range of topics—from education to corruption. To be sure, though, many journalists are doing great work, and in a 2013 report released by the International Press Institute, some of these journalists offered their advice for poverty journalism.

Here are three macro-level questions culled from that report that journalists can ask themselves as they write about poverty, regardless of the specific MDG issue being covered.

Are the Poor Being Heard?

Journalists are messengers. The poor everywhere have messages that they cannot bring to the world’s attention. They are like people stranded on an island, drawing futile S.O.S. appeals in the sand. Journalists can use their resources to serve as a link between the impoverished and those who can best assist them.

That isn’t to say that every poor individual has a distress signal to communicate. Success stories make great news and development groups will sometimes be able to put journalists in touch with people who can attest from personal experience to the benefit of a solution.

In particular, journalists should more often listen to and report the words of children, according to Jean Claude Louis, the former Haiti country director for Panos Caribbean. What a child might lack in context they can often make up for in their openness and their freedom from bias. Of course, an adult’s perspective can also be invaluable and journalists have no reason to favor one age group’s testimony over another’s.

It’s a truism of journalism: a human voice improves any story and a voice that is rarely heard can draw interest. In today’s media, the poor have voices that are rarely heard.

How Can an Issue Be Related to “Home”?

Journalists sometimes assume that a story covering, for example, an MDG related to HIV/AIDS in a foreign country will not appeal to their local readership.

However, local readerships are more globally representative than ever. Recognizing this fact, the Toronto Star began publishing a lengthy world news supplement every week, which provides ethnic populations in the community the news from home they crave.

If journalists use their dialogue with the impoverished to develop real-life stories, their local readerships will pay more attention than if they relied on statistics alone. People want to be able to contrast their experiences with the experiences of others abroad. For this reason, a story on gender inequality in Bangladesh could engage an audience in a developed country.

“Immediate contrast has impact,” said Mary Vallis, an editor at the Star.

Others, like business and technology writer Iain Marlow, point out that all audiences are global audiences in today’s world. One cannot understand domestic events without understanding the foreign impact on those events.

Will This Story Help Hold Organizations Accountable?

The 2012 MDG Progress Report affirmed that the first MDG target has been met: extreme poverty fell from 47 to 24 percent. All the same, significant progress is still needed in areas such as sustainability, sanitation and malnourishment. People need to be reminded that governments have pledged to remedy these ills in order to oblige them to do so.

As a result, reporters need to situate stories on development themes in the larger MDG picture.

For example, journalism in Latin America and the Caribbean has increasingly covered topics such as gender inequality and environmental sustainability, focusing on local impacts. This sort of coverage has highlighted the relevance of such issues to local populations, but it has not captured their scope.

A broader knowledge of the larger forces driving inequalities and disparities best directs one’s efforts to reduce those problems. However, it can also overwhelm an audience, making problems seem too massive to change.

The solution to this conundrum is to periodically relate the issues to the MDG commitments. Governments can solve massive problems and people can hold their governments accountable.

Unfortunately, it seems that not every MDG will be met by 2015, but governments are already collaborating and developing a new set of post-2015 goals. Journalists will continue to play an integral role in helping the world achieve the new goals, but they need to fight for the type of coverage that will inform global audiences and help to keep governments and NGOs on track.

– Ryan Yanke

Sources: United Nations 1, United Nations 2, Global Investigative Journalism Network, International Press Institute
Photo: Hongkiat

USAID and three questions/answers
While there are numerous questions regarding world poverty and why we should protect it, here are three big questions and three simple answers that make eliminating poverty a foreseeable future.

Question 1 – Is the Problem too big to address? 

In the case of poverty, no action is too small to make a lasting impact. Food, water, and shelter are basic human needs and when teaching people that are living in poverty how to provide these basic needs for themselves, the solution is very simple. Something small, such as installing a well in an impoverished village can improve the lives of hundreds of people by reducing illnesses caused by dehydration and poor sanitation and creating a source of water for crops to grow.

Question 2 – Doesn’t the US do enough already?

In general, most Americans believe that 25 percent of the United States’ federal budget is allotted to foreign aid. In reality, only one percent of the budget goes to funding programs that provide aid and reduce poverty. To give a bit of perspective, $30 billion goes to foreign aid and $663 billion goes to military spending. When it comes to foreign aid and wealthy countries that can afford to give, the United States ranks among those who give lowest percentage of their GDP, in line after Sweden, Norway, Luxemburg, the United Kingdom, and Ireland. The United States allots only 0.2 percent of gross national income to programs that fight poverty across the world while the highest ranking countries give between 0.5 percent and one percent of their national incomes.

Even so, over the years, there have been many successes in poverty reduction. Today poverty remains as one of the biggest problems in the world, however, according to USAID the number of people living in poverty has been reduced by 50 percent in the last 20 years, smallpox has been eradicated worldwide and since 1990, 800 million people have gained access to improved water supplies and 750 million to improved sanitation. If the U.S. only allots 0.2 percent of the gross national income to foreign aid focused programs, there could be tremendous gains and millions more people would benefit if the U.S. allotted another 0.2 percent or more of the federal budget.

Question 3 – Does corruption in developing nations prevent aid from reaching the most impoverished people?

Yes, corruption exists everywhere, but it is not a justifiable excuse for ignoring the billions of people in developing countries that continue to suffer. In fact, experts have developed strategies of transparency that eligible countries must address before receiving aid. These strategies ensure that the aid coming from the United States goes directly to the people and programs that need it the most.

There it is; three big questions and three simple answers when it comes to world poverty. Eliminating poverty is not too big, and funding to end poverty is increasingly protected from supporting corruption. Advocating for foreign aid from the United States, does not simply eradicate illnesses or provide food and knowledge, but lifts men, women, and children out of poverty and assists in establishing long-term development.

– Kira Maixner

Source: The Borgen Project, USAID
Photo: Global Communities


1. Doesn’t corruption in developing nations prevent aid from reaching the most impoverished people? While corruption exists nearly everywhere, including the United States, it is by no means a justification for ignoring the plight of the world’s poor. In recent years, experts have developed numerous strategies for bypassing corruption and ensuring that the world’s most vulnerable people receive assistance. The United States even set up a funding program (MCC) that requires countries to address corruption before they can receive assistance. This ensures that aid coming from the United States goes directly to the people.


2. Is the problem too big to address? While the problem is huge, the solutions are easy, affordable, and proven to work. In 2015 the UN completed its Millennium Development Goals, which in part sought to cut global hunger in half. This goal was achieved early, and the UN now targets zero hunger by 2030. It estimates that this lofty goal can be achieved with an additional $264 billion spent globally per year. This is less than the United States currently spends on interest payments on the national debt $283 billion and less than half of the U.S. defense budget $612 billion.  


3. Why should the United States address poverty abroad when we have it here? These are not competing interests. Our foreign policy should be focused on international poverty because it’s the right thing to do and because it’s in our strategic interest. And for the same reasons our domestic policy should focus on poverty at home.


4. What is the biggest hurdle in achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals and ending world hunger? Leadership from Congress and the White House. We’re the first country in history that has the ability and political power to end world hunger. As the world’s agenda-setter, the United States is in the unique position of leading the fight to reduce poverty and ensure that the Methods for Ending Poverty are achieved, with help from other nations and the private sector.


5. How is poverty fought on the ground? The strategies range from teaching farmers how to increase crop productivity to giving small loans to women so they can buy ovens and earn money selling bread.


6. Why do CEOs and the business community want the U.S. to end global poverty? The world’s poor are now viewed as the largest untapped market on earth. As people transition from barely surviving into being consumers of goods and products, U.S. companies gain new populations to which they can market their products. Many corporations have already benefited substantially from the poverty reduction that has occurred in India, China, and other parts of the world, and they realize that their future earnings are tied to whether or not U.S. leadership is working to reduce global poverty.


7. Why do defense experts view global poverty as a threat to the United States? Poverty creates desperate people and unstable conditions. As the National Security Strategy of the United States says, “A world where some live in comfort and plenty, while half of the human race lives on less than $2 a day, is neither just nor stable.”