New Research Critiques Instagrammable Humanitarianism and Emotion Tourism

Does Instagram aid marketing really work? And how does emotional tourism in orphanages affect the children it’s meant to help? We summarise two recent studies on these issues, the first looking at the effects of a Danish celebrity’s partnership with an aid agency, the second examining the effects of “hug‐an‐orphan” vacations on children. 
Picture by: @jakobowens1 on Unsplash

By Carolina Are

Instagrammable humanitarianism and the politics of guilt, by Camilla Møhring Reestorff in the Journal of Aesthetics & Culture 

In this 2018 paper, Møhring Reestorff discusses the engagement surrounding Danish pop singer Medina’s work with NGO Act Alliance (Folkekirkens Nødhjælp) to encourage youngsters to travel to refugee camps in Uganda and Kenya through the NGO’s Go Global travel program. The author suggests the NGO’s campaign utilises celebrity advocacy in order to mobilise young Instagrammers accustomed to peer-to-peer communication, and considers the backlash Medina faced due to her engagement with this campaign.

In 2015 pop star Medina became an ambassador for Act Alliance, playing a key part in the NGO’s 2016 “Mevation” campaign — a contraction of Medina, motivation and action — to further youngsters’ knowledge of and involvement in humanitarianism and in the refugee crisis following the war in Syria. Møhring Reestorff describes Medina’s advocacy as a manifestation of the politics of guilt, which on one hand turns her into the “icon-body” reproducing the classic distinction between active Westerners and passive sufferers, and on the other challenges this distinction when she gets involved with the campaign.

The study also examines how newspapers, bloggers and Facebook users reject “the politics of guilt” promoted by the campaign by collectively shaming Medina:

“This kind of shaming […] is a way of rejecting guilt towards suffering others by shaming and denying Medina agency and insisting that she is merely an icon-body.”

Møhring Reestorff  describes how Instagram is becoming the latest frontier of NGO marketing, stating that since “the children of the baby boomers have been through many years of intense marketing exposure” they would not necessarily respond well to traditional advertising and prefer to get their information through peer-to-peer networks:

“The collaboration between Act Alliance and Medina can be understood as a way to utilize the celebrity’s attention and preexisting network to create an instagrammable humanitarianism that facilitates the kind of peer-to-peer communication that may lead youngsters to engage with the campaign.”

The author argues that instagrammable humanitarianism depends on “gestural images” such as selfies: Medina’s pictures “invite her followers into the sociability of her imaginary as celebrity humanitarian.” Yet, crucially, Møhring Reestorff writes that “while the youth might be interested in celebrities, they are not necessarily interested in charity work. In fact older groups tend to approve of associations between charities and celebrities more than younger groups.” Additionally, because of the ubiquity of social media, this type of campaign blurs the target group involving networks and platforms which pick up, repurpose and comment on both celebrity and social media engagement.

Paradoxically therefore, the reaction to Medina’s collaboration with Act Alliance creates further compassion fatigue in the audience, in an example of the “crisis of humanitarianism” which refuses to accept “‘common humanity’ as the motivation for our actions,” a tendency already singled out by Chouliaraki.

“Hug‐an‐orphan vacations”: “Love” and emotion in orphanage tourism, by Dr. Tess Guiney in Royal Geographic Society

This 2017 paper by Dr. Tess Guiney describes the layered emotional entanglements within orphanage tourism drawing from first-person accounts by orphanage directors, volunteers, and commentaries on the subject. In a landscape where humanitarian experiences involving vulnerable children are becoming increasingly popular and problematic, and celebrity humanitarianism and aid campaigns disseminate images of vulnerable children receiving love from celebrities and humanitarian actors, it becomes essential to look at the effect of “hug‐an‐orphan” vacations.

Picture by: @sethdoylee on Unsplash

Dr. Gurney cites a variety of volunteer tourism literature, focusing on how many volunteer tourists are motivated by the possibility of engaging with children. However, she argues that volunteer tourists’ emotions within these encounters are far less examined, as the conditions these children live in is often far more upsetting than they expected.

The study’s main focus however is the effect volunteer tourism has on children. Dr. Gurney argues that:

“[T]he commodification of children through orphanage tourism experiences has resulted in an expectation that they will interact with tourists in particular forms. Children are expected to be ‘poor‐but‐happy’ and to engage intimately with volunteers and visitors to engender tourist satisfaction and encourage sympathy and donations. The performance of this behaviour is mediated and controlled by their emotional supervisors, orphanage directors. Through volunteer tourism, children are now a tourist commodity, utilising their love and emotions and creating space for exploitation.”

Volunteer tourists interviewed by the author provide explanations such as “it’s just that they are so sweet, they just show me that they really like it that I’m there,” (Virginia, 19, from Sweden) as to why they enjoy these type of vacations, a view also confirmed by charity and NGO workers interviewed for the study. However, many volunteer tourists do not seem to be equipped to deal with the reality that children are facing. As explained by an interviewee from a responsible tourism organisation approached by Dr. Gurney: “People get overwhelmed by the situation and they end up breaking down and what good does that do the child?”

Dr. Gurney also mentions how the arrival of international actors and volunteer tourists in orphanages can have “disastrous impacts” on children, who might develop attachment disorders:

“Because volunteers and visitors generally only remain at orphanages for a short period of time, and often take interactions at face value, they can be supporting unsatisfactory conditions for children.”

What’s more, she cites recent news stories’ revelations of “pressure placed upon children to present sad faces and stress their lack of food and dependence on volunteers and visitors, in an attempt to elicit sympathy and donations.”

Young Tourism In The Instagram Age – How Can NGOs Make It Better?

Both Møhring Reestorff’s and Dr. Gurney’s studies show how, despite the extensive body of literature critiquing media representation of children in need and humanitarian tourism, Western audiences and the NGOs trying to appeal to them still sometimes fail to adopt sustainable and considerate aid tactics.

New platforms, it would seem, despite reaching different audiences, replicate issues seen on traditional media. But NGOs’ growing connections with the media sector can help inform audiences instead of titillating their saviour complexes… if used correctly.