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Starving babies or epic landscapes - is that really all there is to Africa?

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Thu, 10 Jan 2013 03:21 PM
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By Katie Nguyen

Oxfam has just launched a campaign to try to change the British public's overwhelmingly negative impression of Africa as a continent of hunger and deprivation.

The reason? The relentless focus on Africa's problems is putting the public off - with almost a quarter of people admitting to turning away when faced with images of hunger, drought and disease. Even more people - three in five - say they've become immune to these depictions, according to a survey commissioned by the charity.

No wonder Oxfam is on a mission to change perceptions. After all, why would people give money to fund aid operations in Africa if they feel hopeless about things ever getting better there?

"We need to shrug off the old stereotypes and celebrate the continent's diversity and complexity," Oxfam's chief executive, Barbara Stocking, said.

Leaving aside the irony that this comes from an organisation which has helped to perpetuate Africa's bleak image abroad (along with many Western journalists), Oxfam may be commended for trying.

But then how deflating it was to see the British charity ditching one set of cliches - begging bowls and helpless victims - for another - lush countryside, waterfalls and colourful markets - in its Food for All campaign.

The adverts come complete with a set of three patronising slogans: "Let's make Africa famous for its epic landscapes/stunning countryside/food markets, not hunger/food shortage."

Lagos-based writer and poet Tolu Ogunlesi said in a critique of Oxfam's "misguided messiah complex" that African Hunger has been replaced with African-Hunger-Backdropped-By-Stunning-African-Landscapes.

Is this Oxfam's idea of a more nuanced portrait?

‘AIRBRUSHED’

Maybe Oxfam was always going to struggle to achieve its aim, given the demands of marketing and fundraising departments across the aid sector for a simple message to sell.

"Africa fatigue lives on," said Ian Burrell, the Independent newspaper’s media editor. "But positive advertising and sumptuous wildlife documentaries should not mean that Africa's pain needs to be airbrushed from the news media too."

Reaction to Oxfam's campaign has ranged from agreement with its aims to cynicism about the aid industry's intentions in Africa. It has also prompted debate over the 'true' image of Africa and questions about the relevance of what the British public thinks to a continent that is pursuing ties elsewhere - notably with China and Turkey, among others.

"Stop showcasing starving children as if selling merchandise. Respect human dignity," Zikomo Banda in Malawi said in a comment on BBC Africa's Facebook page.

In another comment on the same page, Ann Lemaiyan said: "What would the UN workers and the so called ‘poverty warriors’ do without Africa? It is from those pictures of war-torn states, diseased and starving poverty-ridden humanity that loosens purse strings, that keep them employed, keep them driving state of the art four-wheel-drives, keep them in gated communities where the air is rarefied, they live it large and live off the misery of others."

Aid sceptic Ian Birrell said "the anachronistic obsession with aid", which he notes is increasingly alienating the people it is designed to benefit, has blinded Britons to the modern realities of Africa.

He listed greater prosperity, less conflict, rapid urbanisation and a drop in infant mortality. "It is also about Nigerian investors buying assets in Britain, young Europeans searching for work in Algeria and Angola, and American firms seeking technological innovations in Ghana and Kenya," he said.

Meanwhile, Richard Dowden, director of the Royal African Society, questioned how long Oxfam's good intentions would last.

"The implication of what Stocking is saying is that aid agencies have only agreed to tell the truth about Africa now because the images they have been using for fund-raising have actually eroded people's willingness to give them money," Dowden wrote.

"But I will bet that when the next humanitarian disaster hits, the aid agency which advertises with most graphic pictures of the victims will raise most money."

 

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