Buhubalo: Using Instagram to support orphans in Uganda

Buhubalo Children’s Foundation – Instagram

I came across the Buhubalo Instagram account a couple of weeks ago and was fascinated at how they have achieved 243,000 followers in less than 18 months. To put that into context Save the Children UK have 134,000 and Oxfam UK have 84,000. For anyone studying media and development this is a great potential dissertation case study, I also expect an academic journal article will follow one day 🙂 However, for the purpose of this blog I have carried out a very quick content analysis to see if I could understand how they have achieved so many followers in such a short time. I did contact them for an interview, but did not manage to set one up.

The account started on July 21st 2021 with a random image of a group of children with no supporting text whatsoever. Many of the children have masks, but not all of them. There seems to be a couple of adults as well.

10 days later another image is added, this time of children and an adult holding a large piece of paper asking for support for food and masks. Again, no other context. Where are these children? Possibly you were aware from the title of the Instagram account – Buhubalo Children Foundation – but where is this foundation and what does it do?

In the third image we get to find out that the children are orphans – but we’re still not sure where from, until another similar post later that day where we find out the orphanage is in Buluguyi – a quick Google search would let you know this is in Eastern Uganda.

And on 1st September we have a picture of one child – Tom – looking up sadly at the camera, his t-shirt not quite covering his stomach with the text “Please donate any amount for Tom”. This is a fine example of the type of “poverty porn” images that have been widely criticised in both academia (see New Mediums, Better Messages? How Innovations in Translation, Engagement and Advocacy are Changing International Development for a recent publication) and the media.

But most of the criticisms of poverty porn often refer to images used in charity’s adverts produced by western organisations. These images are criticised for being inaccurate, over-simplifying the whole story, perpetuating a neo-colonial discourse, portraying individuals as pitiful victims and contributing to the white savior complex syndrome – amongst others. But these images are being posted by an orphanage in Uganda – is this acceptable? Are the images an accurate representation? Are they decontexualised? The first few certainly are. In Vossen’s (2018) analysis of Dutch, Flemish and British newspaper and NGO advertisments she coded images “as ‘pitiful’ when they depicted people were visibly suffering from malnutrition, illness or hardship: crying, bleeding or sick — but also of injured people in war and disaster areas”. I’m not sure if the image above would qualify as a ‘pitiful’ image or not?

Most of the images over the next few months concentrate on groups of children, sometimes happy, sometimes sad, with messages asking for contributions towards school fees, clothes, shoes, food etc. However, slowly the narrative changes as donations of clothes, shoes and teaching materials arrive and the images start to show these arrivals with supporting text thanking the donors. These posts all receive anywhere between 5 and 40 likes during this six month period, but on 30th January 2022 a reel is posted which receives 144 likes. 3 days later another reel with 281 likes and from then on every post is receiving 100+ likes and growing.

1st reel posted receives 100 likes

The reels are a mix of children eating, receiving donations and thanking people for those donations – the soundtracks are often faith based, but there is a Baby Shark track thrown in for good measure. The next step change is on 22nd April 2022 when a reel is posted of a boy dancing to a track called Calm Down by Rema which has 5,078 likes. Since then they have had several posts and reels which have had 100,000+ likes, with the most popular receiving 575,000 likes which shows a group of children receiving food. The music by the way, is a mixture. I told you this was a basic content analysis.

So why has this Instagram channel become so popular? Why have so many people donated to the orphanage? Is it because in the viewers eyes these photographs and videos are showing the raw reality of the children’s lives? As the channel matured there is a lot of context both visually and in the text. Donors can see where there money is being spent (or at least where some of it is being spent) and they receive thanks directly from the people they are supporting. But many of these likes – even the video with 575,000 – will merely be that – likes! We don’t know exactly what items have been donated and how much money has been donated. A report by the Charity Commission said

Trust in charities remains higher than in most other parts of society – a reflection of the value the public thinks that charities can bring and have brought throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. There is, however, a stubbornly persistent scepticism regarding how charities use their money and how they behave. This was true before the pandemic and is still true now.”

Charity Commission 2022

Does the Buhubalo Instagram page help alleviate this scepticism? Are these Instagram posts more accurate accounts of transparency and accountability? It’s hard to say. But there’s no denying that people “like” their posts and donations are being received. Buhubalo’s most popular reel has 575,000 and Save the Children’s has 119,000 (interestingly it’s Meghan Markle), but what’s also interesting is that their second most liked reel has only 11,300 likes. I am guessing from this that a lot of Instagram advertising spend was put behind the first Meghan Markle post and her next post a year later only had 5,959 likes. Or it could be the recent press coverage around her Netflix series???

So what can western NGOs learn from this account without upsetting academics and the media further? I’m not even going to start on responsible content creation, ethical storytelling and informed consent – but I’d love to know your thoughts….

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