How the Compassion Experience challenges stereotypes about poverty

Family in Sameson 2

In the past few days, a number of comments have been made on social media about the Compassion Experience.

Many of these comments can be summarised by the question 'why help people in other countries when there is poverty in the UK?' - a topic we have discussed from a biblical perspective previously in this article on our main website. No matter where they live, no child should have to live in poverty. There are many fantastic charities working to improve the lives of children in the UK, Compassion's focus is working with the most vulnerable children in some of the poorest countries in the world.

Other comments online appear to be accusations about the Compassion Experience perpetuating stereotypes about Africa and encouraging ‘poverty tourism’.

In fact, the Compassion Experience was conceived to do the exact opposite, to be the antithesis of traditional charity television advertising and street fundraising.

Rather than give a one-dimensional, simplified version of poverty in Africa, the Compassion Experience challenges visitors over 20 minutes to hear and see the real-life stories of two children from Ethiopia and Uganda and understand the complexities of life living below the poverty line.

The Compassion Experience recreates the childhoods of two children, Shamim and Sameson, who were supported through our child sponsorship programme into adulthood. Through headphones, you'll hear their stories unfold while exploring recreations of their homes, schools and other key locations. We worked closely with Shamim and Sameson to ensure their stories were told with dignity - as people with specific experiences and unique perspectives. Both of them wanted visitors to hear about the complexity of poverty – its emotional, spiritual, social and physical consequences - in their own words. 

At the end of each story, you’re also able to see a video of  Shamim and Sameson today, and (spoiler alert) hear in their own words the difference they're making in their communities with the next generations, all because their local churches (supported by Compassion) gave them support and encouragement at critical times in their childhoods.

There’s no images of emaciated children in the Compassion Experience, indeed starvation, famine, malnutrition or access to clean water don’t feature at all. Instead we explore issues including security at night, access to healthcare, the impact of diseases which are easily preventable in the UK, access to education, vocational training and also disability. We're currently developing a new story where we’ll be exploring HIV and AIDS, domestic violence and corruption. But above this, it’s about how poverty creates a lack of opportunity, how it narrows children’s horizons and undermines their ambitions.

When we take the Compassion Experience to city centres and churches across the UK, at the end of the story we offer visitors an opportunity to support Compassion’s work, but we’ve also been to a number of schools who’ve used the vehicle as part of the PHSE work and have appreciated the impact it has with their students.

Feedback from many of our visitors is that they find it an engaging and helpful way to introduce the complexity of global poverty to their families.  

We understand international development and fundraising is a topic that elicits strong emotions and reactions, and we’d encourage all those with questions and concerns about it to visit the Compassion Experience and see for themselves. It’s naturally difficult to achieve all the above while still making it accessible and engaging for primary school-aged children. But treating children in the developing world as objects for pity is the complete opposite of what the Compassion Experience is about - indeed we have a strong network of ‘Compassion Graduates’ (those who were part of the Compassion programme when they were children) who are now living in the UK and they’d be very quick to tell us if they felt that’s what we were doing!