In a study reported by the BBC today, aid agency Oxfam has said that people’s negative impression of Africa was making it hard to raise assistance for the continent. Instead, Oxfam says it wants to improve the way people think about ‘Africa’, and present a more hopeful image. Says Oxfam’s CEO Dame Stocking:
We need to shrug off the old stereotypes and celebrate the continent’s diversity and complexity, which is what we’re attempting with this campaign. The relentless focus on ongoing problems at the expense of a more nuanced portrait of the continent, is obscuring the progress that is being made towards a more secure and prosperous future. If we want people to help fight hunger we have to give them grounds for hope by showing the potential of countries across Africa…
This cry is by no means a new one. Binyavanga Wainaina’s popular, passionate and now-mainstream “How To Write About Africa” is a scathing satire of mainstream western representations of the continent, and it wasn’t a particularly new issue when that was published in 2005. Concerns about donor fatigue- the idea that people constantly presented with images and stories of human suffering will stop giving, unless presented with ever greater and more shocking narratives- has been around for many years as well.
Part of the problem, the BBC says in its explanation of the report, is media representation of Africa as a place of suffering, famine and human misery. Columnist and correspondent Ian Birrell responded with a sharp:
And he has a point. NGO media campaigns, in their efforts to galvanize sympathy, do focus on stories of misery and suffering, often competing with one another for the most tragic stories to draw donors towards their campaigns, and reinforcing these negative stereotypes. The 1984-5 Band-Aid and Live-Aid campaigns, turning points in the history of NGO fundraising, began a trend of guilting the Western public into giving with a cycle of ever more shocking images and heart-breaking stories.
Of course, it’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg thing. The public certainly appear to ‘demand’ shocking images before they respond with financial support- but why? Is it that charities have produced more and more heart-rending pictures and tales into the mainstream media which have raised the public’s expectations and the media’s need to reciprocate? Or has a mainstream media desensitized the public through its efforts to sell air-time through ever more horrifying footage of calamity around the world, and in order to compete with the headlines, NGOs have felt forced into raising the stakes on their side as well?
It makes you question the underlying assumptions. We’ve been working within a paradigm for a good fifty years where it is assumed knowledge that in order to motivate charity, you must first demonstrate need. Must you? It’s worked over the years- to a point- but at what cost? The desensitization of a viewing public (at least in part contributable to NGO fundraising campaigns, and a certainly-complicit mainstream media)? The objectification of an entire genre of humans- the voiceless, hopeless poor? And, a much darker implication, that the negative view of Africa- as a hopeless, disaster-ridden, corrupt and diseased place so overwhelmed with loss and negativity- means that people feel dissuaded from giving or- worse- investing.
This impression that many people in the Western world have has, I suspect, got far deeper and more complex roots than simplified and cliched media and NGO messaging. Our own assumptions about chronic poverty in our own experiences come in to play- like the assumptions we might make about the homeless drunk who sits with his cardboard sign outside the supermarket; we quietly assume he is going to buy alcohol with whatever money he receives, and in subtle ways we transcribe that expectation onto the chronic poverty we see on TV screens. Cliched tales of African despots purchasing private jets with aid dollars linger, decades later- not, as Oxfam points out, that there aren’t portions of the African continent that have problems, such as chronic malnutrition, war and corruption. (Interestingly, though, even this representation is highly politicized in the public messaging we receive. A despot like Robert Mugabe is easy pickings as the prime example of the African strongman, and broadly criticized. Far less noise is made about leaders like Uganda’s Museveni, or Rwanda’s Kagame, both of whom probably have far more of their peoples’ blood on their hands, in retrospect. However because they have brought stability- or a perception of it- to their respective nations, their detractors have less voice.)
I think a lot of this stems, ultimately, to our fear of the unknown, of the other. The narratives presented, equally by fundraising NGOs or by media looking for a quick hook, gain traction with us because they connect with that disquiet deep inside us that sees something different, alien, something that falls well outside the story of our daily lives, and makes us uncomfortable. I think this is a human trait, and not specifically the domain of wealthy white people in suburban homes with cable TV. I also think that it is entirely possible to choose to overcome it, to perceive it, to change its influence on our mindsets, if we make the effort to recognize it, and if we make the effort to educate ourselves so that the other, that which is different, becomes less unfamiliar, more understandable.
I like the idea that Oxfam- not uniquely- puts forward, about understanding the complexity and diversity of the African context. I like the idea of challenging stereotypes. I think ways of thinking should and must be confronted and assumed narratives deconstructed, among the general public, among the mainstream (and non-mainstream) media, and among charities’ fundraising arms. I particularly like the idea of telling the story of people and places, of painting them as faithfully and honestly as possible, as balanced and lovingly as possible, of capturing their humanity, identifying with their commonality, and celebrating their differences- wherever they are from. I like the idea of stories being told by many different people- sure, Africans telling stories about Africans, but equally Caucasians like me telling stories about Africans, and Africans telling stories about Caucasians- and so forth, because each voice, each perspective, is a facet in our view of this complex jewel we call humanity. I’m reading a book, They Poured Fire on us From the Sky, written by three Dinka boys who were forced to flee their homes during the Sudanese Civil War, and one of the most interesting parts of the narrative, for me, is to read about the way they perceived western aid workers, people like me, coming into their relief camps.
Ultimately, I really like the idea that maybe, just maybe, the best way to get people to care for and contribute to the needs of the less fortunate is to humanize them, to show their potential, to showcase the good, and not the bad. Maybe.
So I agree with Oxfam, that people in need have to have their story told differently, and that representations of them in the media undermine their ability to grow, to be supported, and to be treated with dignity. And I agree with Ian, that blame rests equally on the shoulders of the NGO community as with the media’s. And I think it goes far deeper than either one, and that responsibility for this mindset ultimately belongs to the individual, who must choose to recognize the assumed narratives they frame the world with, or choose ignorance.
The Red Cross and NGO Code of Conduct, Article 10, states:
In our information, publicity and advertising, we shall recognize disaster victims as dignified human beings, not hopeless objects: Respect for the disaster victim as an equal partner in action should never be lost. In our public information we shall portray an objective image of the disaster situation where the capacities and aspirations of disaster victims are highlighted, and not just their vulnerabilities and fears. While we will cooperate with the media in order to enhance public response, we will not allow external or internal demands for publicity to take precedence over the principle of maximizing overall relief assistance. We will avoid competing with other disaster response agencies for media coverage in situations where such coverage may be to the detriment of the service provided to the beneficiaries or to the security of our staff or the beneficiaries.
They’re good words. Good words to aim for. I’m confident that aid agencies consistently fail to live up to them- despite, I believe, many aid workers and their organizations truly believing these are good things to aspire towards. I also think it’s a perspective we could all embrace when we visualize those places less fortunate than ourselves- whether in some broad notion of ‘Africa’, or the homeless man outside the supermarket. And I think we can go a step further. Dignified human beings. With potential. With creativity. With dreams and visions. Among whom so many are working so hard to improve the world around them, and succeeding in ways small and large. Not to patronize. Not to simplify.There are shades of grey in everything. But to embrace the traits that make all of us human, regardless of where we’re from, and to recognize that in the ‘other’. I think if we could only perceive just how like one another we all are, we’d find we behaved very differently.
I’m not blameless in this myself in my own representations of the less fortunate I meet, although I do consciously work towards a balance. I enjoy analysing the complexity of things– specifically in relation to the aid industry. I try to look at times where the aid industry gets it right, and where it gets it wrong. Sometimes I do talk about the needs of people in Africa or elsewhere- though I hope I do so in a fair and dignified way. I’m no fan of the media- or well-meaning individuals– presenting a pathetic impression of Africa, or the poor. And yes, sometimes I write about the landscapes– after all, I’m also a photographer. But I also like to think I capture some of the people and places, and some of the hope too. Everything is nuanced. Nothing black and white. But feel free to hold me to account in the work I do.