“In Norway kids are freezing. It’s time for us to care. There’s heat enough for Norway, if Africans would share!”

These are the lyrics of a song in a glossy music video, sung by African musicians, featuring compelling images of African ‘aid workers’ from an organisation called Radi-Aid, handing out radiators to cold and grateful Norwegian families.

Of course the video, made by South African students, is a spoof, but the intent is serious. Fed up with the portrayal of Africans as helpless, as only ever characterised by images of starving black babies and of aid workers patronisingly helping out in times of disaster, the video cleverly turns the mirror inwards. Africans are not helpless. They are not all made up of starving children. And for the most part, they’re just like you or me. They desire love and happiness. They strive to feed their families and would like a nice home, to educate their children and just to get on in life.

At the same time as we’ve reached a historic political acceptance of the need to give a fixed proportion (0.7%) of our GDP towards aid – a target that goes back as far as the 1970s – scepticism towards aid is also on the rise, putting politicians of all stripes out on a limb in trying to defend the commitment. A recent study from the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) and the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) showed that people are more concerned about economic hardship at home than about helping others overseas. Moreover, people are simply feeling that aid doesn’t work.

The ODI/IPPR study, alongside others, including one by the London School of Economics academic Nandita Dogra, attributes our scepticism to the bombardment of media images of extreme suffering and poverty, concluding that these create the impression that nothing has changed and nothing ever will. Dogra also reveals in her book Representations of Global Poverty: Aid, Development and International NGOs, that our depictions of poverty are entirely divorced from their real root causes. As a result, we are left feeling less compassion rather than more. We sense that what happens in Mali or Ethiopia or Honduras has to do with something beyond our control (corruption, weather, lack of competitiveness, laziness), save for sending a few scraps of charity.

It seems that in pulling the short-term heartstrings, most NGOs and the media fail to depict what’s really happening, resulting in turning people away from compassion or, worse, engendering a sense of helpless pity rather than what’s really needed, which is empathy and solidarity.

And what’s seldom revealed in our depictions of global poverty is that the issues that cause long-term poverty aren’t ‘their’ problem. They’re ours too. The root causes of poverty that have an impact on Africa, for instance, have as much of an impact in Western Europe or North America or Japan.

It’s no surprise that we pay far greater attention to a disaster happening in the USA – quite simply, we can relate to their experience far more easily. We can imagine what it would be like to be in that situation, and so we have empathy for their plight. Thus, in 2012, the same year that the USA experienced a severe drought, we had almost daily media coverage of that heat wave, while news of a famine at the same time in sub-Saharan Africa, impacting 18.7 million people, barely reached our screens. Most American disasters, from 9/11 to Hurricane Katrina, receive a far greater proportion of media attention – and financial support – relative to the size of the disaster.

So if the first step towards getting beyond scepticism is empathy, the more critical second step is solidarity. And this is a far more challenging leap to make. Whereas empathy involves being able to put yourself vicariously in someone else’s shoes, solidarity is created when we understand our shared experience and the mutual need to collaborate. It moves us from seeing people as the ‘other’ to recognising that we can address our collective problems jointly and that, to use the well-worn phrase, “we ARE all in this together”.

The root cause, which impacts us all, is clear: an unjust economic system that prioritises the needs of financial capital over the needs of people. It’s the globalised, liberalised market that impoverishes and drives a trickle-up economic maelstrom, where power and extreme inequality prevail.

In spite of the alleged need for imposed austerity measures throughout the economic crisis, we’ve seen rising incomes amongst the very rich. Recent figures from the UK government show that the number of people earning more than £1 million has doubled in the past two years, whilst wages at the low end of the scale have remained stagnant or fallen. Meanwhile, people on low incomes are portrayed as scroungers undeserving of our support. ‘What they need is a kick in the pants, not more state handouts.’ Sound familiar? It’s the developing-country story being played out at the local level. But the solution isn’t charity either (unlike the over-hyped aspirations of the Big Society as laid out by Cameron et al. shortly after being elected).

If what we need is structural reform of our economy and our political systems, then armchair sympathy – pulling on our heartstrings – will get us nowhere. It’s as far from the spirit of solidarity as we can possibly get. And whilst it may work in the short run, it’s not sustainable over the long term. An example of this misguided approach can be found in the growth of food banks in the UK. The years 2010–2012 saw a growth in the use of food banks of over 1,200%, according to the Trussell Trust. How long can this be sustained before people either lose compassion or join the queues themselves?

So it’s no wonder that public support for aid has waned; and it’s no wonder that a major famine is all but ignored. We have no sense of shared plight or shared experience. ‘What happens to them can’t possibly happen to us.’

The antidote is for us to consciously strive better to understand and promote our shared experience. This is starting to happen, but not in the traditional domains. The Occupy movement has been doing far more to engender that spirit than 40 years of well-funded ‘development’ organisations or the mainstream media.

The website that accompanies the Radi-Aid spoof video says this: “Imagine if every person in Africa saw the Africa for Norway video, and this was the only information they ever got about Norway. What would they think about Norway?” The film-makers are not suggesting that we shouldn’t give aid – or that we should ever lose our compassion for those who are genuinely suffering and in need. But they are telling us not to objectify them and not to portray an unbalanced representation that bears little resemblance to what the majority of people experience.

We can only develop and achieve the right solutions in the long run if we can relate to each other and work together more effectively. And in this hyper-media-driven age, the images and the messages we portray could very well be the most important place to start.

Deborah Doane is former Director of the World Development Movement and now works independently on social justice issues.