Graphic depictions of human-rights abuse—and shaming its perpetrators—can hinder humanitarian efforts

Shaming perpetrators of human-rights abuse and shocking audiences with visceral imagery can be an ineffective—and counterproductive—approach to improving humanitarian conditions, according to new research from Case Western Reserve University.

The finding can help advocacy organizations navigate efforts to end or ease ongoing abuse around the world.

The research, published in Human Rights Quarterly—a journal published by Johns Hopkins University Press—suggests that effects of "shocking and shaming" fail to produce long-term change, can halt or reverse progress, and are often limited by a lack of strategy beyond creating immediate reactions.

"Shocking populations about suffering is not always the right choice," said Sara Lahti Thiam, a visiting assistant professor of medical anthropology and global health at Case Western Reserve, who wrote the . "While it's effective at getting people to feel strong emotions—at first—those effects diminish without thoughtful and strategic follow-up efforts."

The research found a lack of standards among organizations to measure success of their campaigns and an absence of planning beyond initial shock-and-shame efforts.

An unintended long-term backlash for victims and other vulnerable populations can also result—especially if advocacy campaigns overestimate or inflate the problem's magnitude just to gain maximum shock value, said Lahti Thiam.

"Without knowing who should be outraged and moved to act by the revelation of abuses, human-rights campaigns put their ultimate goals in jeopardy," Lahti Thiam said.

Grabbing and losing attention

In 2010, Human Rights Watch issued a report showing dramatic evidence of teachers of Islamic schools forcing thousands of children to beg for money in Senegal and other parts of West Africa. The children, known as taalibes, also endured violence, neglect and other exploitation.

The report received media attention worldwide, and the Senegalese government banned begging by children in its capital within four months.

Yet, opponents cast the ban as a rash submission to foreign pressures seeking to disfavor Islamic education, and it was reversed in just six weeks.

Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch failed to offer a counter-narrative, relying on the initial disgust generated by the report—and thereby showing the limits of its technique, said Lahti Thiam.

In fact, the swift ban reversal effectively legalized the practice of forced child begging in the eyes of Senegalese citizens, the paper noted. The reversal also offered credibility to religious, economic and civil rights arguments raised in its favor.

"Shock and shame was not nearly enough to make a significant impact on a highly complex problem rooted in regional poverty, religious tradition and long-term power struggles," said Lahti Thiam. "The situation remained effectively unchanged—or worse for some victims."

After shock

To improve the performance of such human rights campaigns, the paper suggests other approaches to "shocking and shaming:"

  • Partner with local human rights advocates to ensure credibility and coordination and the efficient use of limited resources;
  • Avoid using discourse that does not mesh with existing local customs, beliefs, history and politics;
  • Be clear about long-term goals—from specific legislation to improvements in education funding, etc.—in addition to short-term changes being sought;
  • Be careful using images of suffering people, including children, which often occurs without their consent and offers easy opportunities to question a report's ethics;
  • Define a clear audience that can help to bring about the desired changes.

The paper is based on 135 interviews with taalibes, their families, Islamic school instructors, Senegalese government officials, non-government organization personnel, scholars and community members.

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Jan 24, 2019
A reason for this is that most cases of such "violations" are fraudulently depicted. Foremen in the Old South never whipped slaves. That would run the risk of damaging a valuable worker. Many, and likely even most, were allowed to buy their freedom. Many if not most had their own sources of income.
Another reason this doesn't work is that often, those identified as "oppressors" go through pretty hard times themselves! Those in absolute charge can be said to be the only ones to denounce, but most programs of "opposing inequities" only target "the little guy", blaming them for "abuse" they never even commit! Those in absolute charge are always spared!
And that is because many programs of "civil rights" are nothing more than scams by political connivers, targeting individuals eager to see themselves as innocent victims of monsters. The connivers want power for themselves but don't want to completely overturn the government!

Feb 18, 2019
Your lie falls easily in the face of the whippings recorded in the journals and diaries of masters and slaves as well as in newspapers of the time and the photographs of the scarred backs of former slaves.

Because of's inability to deal with blatant racists like julianpenrod, I would recommend that school administrators block on school networks.

Feb 18, 2019
St. Louis Republican (15th September, 1844)

"On Friday last the coroner held an inquest at the house of Judge Dunica, a few miles south of the city, over the body of a negro girl, about 8 years of age, belonging to Mr. Cordell. The body exhibited evidence of the most cruel whipping and beating we have ever heard of. The flesh on the back and limbs was beaten to a jelly -- one shoulder-bone was laid bare -- there were several cuts, apparently from a club, on the head -- and around the neck was the indentation of a cord, by which it is supposed she had been confined to a tree. She had been hired by a man by the name of Tanner, residing in the neighborhood, and was sent home in this condition. After coming home, her constant request, until her death, was for bread, by which it would seem that she had been starved as well as unmercifully whipped."

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