Steve Lynch, in a personal capacity, argues that however honourable the motives, it is not a charity’s job to rebrand Africa.
Oxfam's latest multimedia, multiplatform campaign, See Africa Differently, doesn't have any people in it.
There are beautifully shot images of waterfalls, thriving markets, landscapes and mountains, but no actual people. Have Oxfam gone into the tourism promotion business, or are they trying to make another point? Well, as Nick Futcher of Oxfam and the ads themselves tell us, Oxfam want us to make Africa 'famous for its epic landscapes, not hunger'. Another ad in the series moans that Africa is only ever in the news because of famine and war, rather than because 'of its abundant natural beauty’.
Leaving aside the fact that nowhere is ever in the news because of ‘its abundant natural beauty’, where does the motivation for this approach come from? Will a charity ‘rebrand’ of Africa bear fruit in terms of either shifting public perceptions or increasing fundraising income and, critically, is it really within the scope or remit of charities to redefine the relationship between the West and Africa?
Firstly, it’s important to say that the desire to see Africa differently probably comes from a good place. Traditionally, so the argument goes, we portray Africans as passive victims, using ‘fly-baby’ images to perpetuate the idea that Africans are incapable of helping themselves and stuck in an intractable cycle of poverty and hunger. Advocates for change argue this approach, often labeled ‘poverty pornography’, is rooted in colonialism and doesn’t allow room for us to show the richness and diversity of Africa and Africans – and can actually rob people of their humanity, suggesting their problems can only be addressed by the benevolence of western, white, donors.
BOND, the umbrella organisation for UK based development NGOs, published a 2011 report which summarised the ‘problems’ of this approach thus:
The most widespread model for public engagement has been labelled as the ‘Live Aid Legacy’, which casts the UK public in the role of ‘dominant giver’, and Southern publics in the role of ‘grateful receiver’. In this model, the causes of poverty are internal to poor countries, and nothing to do with global politics. All the UK public can do is give money, and invariably they believe that some, if not most of the money does not get through to those in need; hence Africa in particular is described as “a bottomless pit”.
Writing in The Independent, Jonathan Tanner argues this approach ultimately has a negative impact on donations.
“If images of starving babies produce a strong emotional reaction, and therefore strong financial and political support, how are we going to show that we’re making progress? People won’t keep donating if they think nothing has changed.”
These contributions, and Oxfam’s current campaign, are deeply flawed.
They suggest that to portray the ‘truth’ of Africa (whatever that is) we simply substitute so-called ‘negative’ portrayals for more positive ‘good news’ images and stories. There’s a real risk this desire to rebrand Africa, arguably, leads to representations that are more paternalistic and patronising than the ‘traditional’ depictions it wants to replace. At the same time the ‘rebrand’ risks undermining, perhaps fatally, fundraising income.
To address this latter issue first, the argument as articulated by Mr Tanner and many others, is that the UK public are simply fed up with images of poverty and have developed an emotional immunity to pictures of malnourished and sick babies. Fundraisers commonly call this ‘compassion fatigue’ and there’s absolutely no evidence to suggest it exists.
The DEC’s 2011 East Africa Appeal raised more money than all but two other appeals in its 30-year history, the 2005 Tsunami and 2010 Haiti Earthquake: and this despite comparatively minimal media coverage. Each individual development charity will have numerous examples of successful appeals which prove their audiences respond generously when presented with a compelling, emotionally engaging case for support.
The UK public has proved, time after time after time, that when their fellow human beings are suffering, they respond with compassion and generosity, little matter how many times they might have responded similarly in the past. Empathy and sympathy, it seems, are not finite qualities.
Doesn’t this generosity also tell us something else, something that perhaps fatally undermines the rebranders’ position? What if people give generously to emergency appeals not because of any stereotype they may possess of what being African means, or any misplaced sense of colonial responsibility. Couldn’t it be that they give because when they see a portrayal of a person suffering they recognise their humanity? They don’t see a cliché, a symbol or a representation, they see another human being who is suffering and perhaps think ‘there but for the grace of God go I’.
Moreover, the assertion that charities only communicate negative stories simply isn’t true. As every good fundraiser will attest, showing people the impact of their donations and how people are transforming their lives as a result is an essential part of the fundraising mix and, arguably, the key to building long-term relationships with donors.
A related issue is the rebranders concern that negative images of famine or hunger aren’t representing the whole truth of Africa, and instead perpetuate a Western view of Africans as passive beneficiaries of our largesse. The short answer is that when we as fundraisers show or discuss human suffering, we do so because that suffering actually exists. To refuse to show or discuss this suffering, however well-meaning the motivation, is tantamount to lying.
I’ve worked with numerous development charities and have never been asked to select or manipulate images or stories to imply a situation is worse than it is. As a sector, we’re pretty good at ensuring we tell the real stories, reflecting the real needs, of real people. Perhaps its time to stop beating ourselves up about it? How much worse if people’s stories are spun – or in Oxfam’s case ignored altogether – merely to ensure they reflect the current academic vogue to ‘accentuate the positive’.
But, the rebranders ask, what good is it communicating about Africa if we’re not addressing the bigger problems? How can we ever make real inroads against poverty in the developing world when we’re perpetuating a donor/beneficiary paradigm? The answer might be a hard one for some charity professionals to stomach, but it’s one I’m confident the vast majority of donors are perfectly well aware of. The fact is however energetic their lobbying, however widespread their campaigning, however generous their donors, it is not within the power of the charitable sector to provide a long-term solution to poverty in the developing world.
The world economy is loaded against people in the developing world and while charities might help achieve a UN resolution here, or a World Bank concession there, they’re ultimately toothless. One could make the case that the idea the problems of the African people can be addressed via the political efforts of the UK charitable sector (rather than through the actions of African people themselves) is inherently patronising and not a little arrogant.
And much as donors might have an earnest desire for lasting, continent-wide change, I’d suggest they instinctively understand what, ultimately, is within their means to help achieve. Perhaps that’s why (as a rule of thumb) appeals which explain how donors can tangibly help real individuals, achieve overwhelmingly better results than those that present the larger, seemingly intractable problems. Tell people about 1 million children who need nets to protect them from malaria and the solution is outside of their reach, but tell them about one child and they can do something.
But, the rebranders often ask, ‘what about our duty to dispel the myths and show the positive side of Africa?’ I hope it’s not too controversial if I suggest that’s not the job of charities.
As many eminent commentators have investigated with enormous rigour, how we in the West understand Africa and the developing world is the legacy of over 200 years of Western cultural, political and economic hegemony. In order to justify their imperial domination, our forbears presented Africans as almost helpless, dependent on our Christian beneficence for their very survival. While the vestiges of this worldview undoubtedly remain stubbornly lodged in part of the population’s collective consciousness, charities cannot and should not shoulder the blame.
Even if we accept that work needs to be done to challenge people’s ideas about Africa, its important to bear in mind that charity communications are likely to play only a miniscule part, if any, in this process. We form our ideas and perceptions of Africa (as with everything else) based on what we see in the news media, through culture, art, films and books and increasingly from the internet. A lot of us work, live, study and socialise with members of the diaspora and new connections to African people and experiences are only a mouse-click away. How dare Oxfam presume that we can’t work out for ourselves that Africa isn’t just about famine?
Bearing this in mind, perhaps the real reason that See Africa Differently doesn't have any people in it, is not the British public becoming bored of seeing the type of images the rebranders want to proscribe. Perhaps it's the bigwigs at Oxfam who don't want to see them?
Perhaps images of suffering and hardship remind the rebranders of an uncomfortable truth, that they are, ultimately, impotent in the face of poverty on the scale it exists in Africa. Real images of real people might be a reminder of this, so instead we have the visual stimulus of waterfalls, landscapes and mountains and the intellectual Viagra of a charity believing only it has the wisdom and foresight to appreciate the facile truth that Africa isn’t just about poverty. And the result is a fatuous See Africa Differently campaign that is little better than self-abuse.
Wherever people are in need, it’s a charity’s job to tell their fellow human beings about that need and ask them to help. We must not allow our misplaced guilt at the uneven political and cultural development of our country in relation to much of Africa, stand in the way of doing the job charities exist to perform.
P.S. The cultural, political and economic issues raised in this debate would require a book, at least, to explore fully, so please accept my apologies that my observations are, of necessity, sometimes a little truncated.
For anybody interested in looking at this issue further, this website is a great resource, containing links to many interesting articles and academic papers. For people with a bit more time and an interest in the history of how we represent what he terms ‘the other’, Edward Said’s Orientalism remains the seminal text.