Poverty pr0n
March 18, 2011 12:30 PM   Subscribe

Hiding the Real Africa

Africans themselves readily concede that there continues to be terrible conflict and human suffering on the continent. But what’s lacking, say media observers like Sunny Bindra, a Kenyan management consultant, is context and breadth of coverage so that outsiders can see the continent whole—its potential and successes along with its very real challenges. “There are famines; they’re not made up,” Bindra says. “There are arrogant leaders. But most of the journalism that’s done doesn’t challenge anyone’s thinking.”
posted by infini (23 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Assume NGOs were 100% transparent and there was no Sally Struthers. Would these NGOs be out of business, are the problems, like Sally Struthers hair, overblown?
posted by stbalbach at 12:48 PM on March 18, 2011

I would looove to get some demographics on who all of these NGO participants are.
posted by jsavimbi at 12:56 PM on March 18, 2011

Han's Rosling did a few great TED Talk on the preconceived notions of poverty which dovetails nicely with this.

From there, its well worth watching some talks by Andrew Mwenda

Heck, and then you find that even the places where we think things are fairly reported and wrong - Eleni Gabre-Madhin points out that even they produce food, but lack distribution networks...
posted by Nanukthedog at 1:13 PM on March 18, 2011 [3 favorites]

I lived in Senegal for several years, and I would often get a bit of a "why on earth would you live there?" reaction from people. It's a great place to live: safe, inexpensive, warm, good food, good surfing. But people hear Africa and thing I must have been living in a hut.
posted by Nothing at 1:16 PM on March 18, 2011 [9 favorites]

Landmark African communications satellite to launch next month 90% funded from African sources.
Mobile in Africa: from SMS to Android. It took 25 years to reach the landmark figure of 200 million mobile phone subscribers in Africa but the next 200 million have been reached in the last three
posted by adamvasco at 1:36 PM on March 18, 2011 [2 favorites]

The negative portrayal is so we don't feel so bad when to have to invade them when they discover oil to save them from Islamic Extremism.
posted by doctor_negative at 2:09 PM on March 18, 2011 [3 favorites]

Just dropped by to say there is no "Real Africa." It is really convenient that an article for Columbia Journalism Review blames NGO's who "enlist" journalists to create a gloomy view of Africa. I can't remember the last time I read a mainstream newspaper or turned on the TV to hear reporting painting anything in a positive light. Most media outlets thrive on doom and gloom, the idea that the organizations attempting to organize and distribute aid are responsible for the negative pictures in the news is ridiculous, and her argument is weak.
posted by thankyouforyourconsideration at 2:19 PM on March 18, 2011 [5 favorites]

Most media outlets thrive on doom and gloom, the idea that the organizations attempting to organize and distribute aid are responsible for the negative pictures in the news is ridiculous, and her argument is weak.

I agree with you that to blame the NGOs and the UNs alone for this imbalance in coverage thus slanting perception of what African countries are like is ridiculous.

I agree that the media is terribly slanted in its portrayal of African countries.

But I also think that the point made in the first two paragraphs is worthy of consideration. The first article in the series that adamvasco has kindly done me teh favour to link to in his comment, has a paragraph taht captures well what i want to say regarding this media perception of Africa:

All of this economic activity has been “under the radar” as the Western media portrayals of Africa and Africans tend to paint a picture of charity and developmental aid. Such imagery has never been the norm in the Indian and Chinese media, perhaps because – until recently – they were considered to be in the same boat. Long seen as short-term exploitative opportunists, India and China’s committed investments in this now-visible emerging market have garnered the appreciation of their African partners. Where they were hailed as neocolonists seeking to extract natural resources for their own rapidly growing needs just 2 or 3 years ago, today they are the brands shaping the market tastes by leveraging their experience in successfully operating in challenging environments and reaching the most demanding consumers.

That by overly biasing the reportage of Africa, there is a tendency to overlook the economic opportunities and simply concentrate on charity and aid aka development funds rather than VC funds. There's a direct impact to the local economy as well as the "risk of Africa" means that simple bank loans available only with extreme difficulty to SMEs wanting to expand their operations or purchase machinery come with high interest rates averaging 15 to 18 % - this means people tend to save cash to make purchases, hampering the rate of growth by extending the time taken to respond to opportunities.

This is not just a matter of 'oh dear Bono wants a pretty picture of poverty' but that the aid/development complex aka the Lords of Poverty would rather that their view of Africa remain top of mind and dominant. Which I'm sure the Indian and Chinese manufacturers are quite happy to have continue as it allows them unfettered access to markets as traders and businessmen, not aid workers and missionaries. Interestingly, its considered a surprise that the Africans prefer doing business with them so much.

FWIW this article was forwarded to me by a colleague in Nairobi, a Kenyan entreprenuer who said "Written far better what we've always known to be true". Perhaps you'd care to debate her argument with those who see this media play everyday?
posted by infini at 2:43 PM on March 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

Reminiscent of a lot of CNN shots of poor people, camels and deserts when the US invaded Iraq.

It turns out they used to have very modern looking cities where they now have rubble, I guess the photographers just missed those.
posted by Stagger Lee at 2:47 PM on March 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

Okay, I have an American friend who founded an orphanage for AIDs orphans in Kenya. He gathers up teenagers from here in America, and ships them off to volunteer at this orphanage. For most of the teenagers, it's the most momentous experience of their lives. But here's my question: Don't they have Kenyans who can do this? Isn't Kenya a big, sophisticated country with lots of grown ups who are perfectly capable of caring for AIDS orphans on their own? Do they really need suburban teenagers from America to go over there and show them how its done? Or is there some other agenda at work? What's going on here?
posted by Faze at 3:05 PM on March 18, 2011

Faze: Isn't Kenya a big, sophisticated country with lots of grown ups who are perfectly capable of caring for AIDS orphans on their own?

The problem is that skilled workers in poorer countries generally don't want to stay there. For example:

"In Ghana and Zimbabwe, more than 70 per cent of doctors emigrate, mostly to Britain, within five years of graduation. In Malawi, 60 per cent of nursing positions are unfilled because of the exodus to higher-paid jobs in the West. The flight of health care workers is unsurprising. Afflicted by war, disease, hunger, poverty and the government corruption that means few escape it, those African professionals who have had the opportunity to get out have usually taken it."

UK still poaching African nurses (2003)
Health workers leave in droves (2004)
Nurse exodus leaves Kenya in crisis (2006).
posted by rh at 3:26 PM on March 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

"poverty porn" (from the original article). Great phrase and sort of sums up our modern relationship with the news media, as we jack off to other people's misery every night in the privacy of our living rooms.

Of course right now there top-notch hardcore disaster porn is available so poverty porn, and even revolution porn, isn't doing so well in the ratings.

But the relationship between media and charities is even more symbiotic than the article recognises. Engaging intimately with other people's trauma, although hard to resist and very addictive, is often oddly unsatisfying and leads to feelings of guilt, regret, and emptiness. Fortunately we can then turn to charities to relieve those feelings by sending $10 here or there. A purely symbolic moral gesture of course, but so long as it makes us feel better, it's working fine.
posted by Philosopher's Beard at 3:40 PM on March 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

Always mess up strikethrough (it previews as fine).

Very interesting, thank you for sharing this infini (and thanks for linking to a single page!). Also thanks for bringing up China and India. This quote in the FPP article sticks out:

Among corporate officials, says Catherine Duggan, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School, the perception is still that “Africa is where you put your money once you’ve made it somewhere else.”

This view is not universal. China is a good example.

China in Africa at a glance

Ndubisi Obiorah provides a great overview of the Chinese-African relationship and the distinction from the West in "Who's Afraid of China in Africa?" (In Stephen Marks' African perspectives on China in Africa). Many Africans viewed China as an ally against Western oppression, then as a trading partner, and now as business partner. This is a stark contrast to Western colonialism and paternalism, which requires Africans to remain childlike and in need:

For many among Africa's ruled who are physically and intellectually exhausted by two decades of economic 'reform' supposedly adopted by African government but driven by Western governments, donors and the IFIs, China represents hope that another world is possible in which bread comes before the freedom to vote.

Of course, totalitarian rule and "money before freedom" may not be great alternatives. But there is also the presence of India, the world's largest democracy and longtime trading partner with many African nations.

It remains to be seen how much all of this economic development and investment will benefit rank and file Africans. In addition, not all African nations are in the same boat, and the same could be said of the multiple ethnicities within each nation.
posted by Danila at 5:33 PM on March 18, 2011

This is a stark contrast to Western colonialism and paternalism, which requires Africans to remain childlike and in need of subjugation assistance.


I smelt the potential new era in Nairobi, feels like New Delhi just after liberalization but just before the economy exploded. I feel at home there, and found myself being respected for (assumed and/or expected) business acumen, seeing as how I was from the Indian tribe. It was interesting to see the potential inherent, waiting to be unleashed. And if India can do it, with all its ethnic challenges, then why not Kenya. It must be the chapatis :)

As you say, this does not, at the moment apply to all SubSaharan countries as across teh board, but there are potentials - Ghana (where wikileaks found that the President complained to the Embassy about American oil firms trying to bribe him ;p), Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria (where Dangote the African Forbes listed billionaire is pumping money into the informal sector) .. others I'm sure, its late at night.

And as a personal anecdote, the need (among some Europeans) to feel superior to someone in order to feel better about oneself came through recently when I found myself in the odd position of neither being poor nor underprivileged, although visually that should have been the case and that really pissed someone off very badly. Someone who works in 'poverty alleviation' and resented the fact that I broke all the rules (poor, starving Indian waiting to be uplifted). Odd that. To hate me for not being the personification of all the media stereotypes spoonfed since childhood (for someone whose life long dream apparently was to help the poor).
posted by infini at 6:09 PM on March 18, 2011 [2 favorites]

The problem is that skilled workers in poorer countries generally don't want to stay there.

Well, having to compete with free food and volunteer labor doesn't really do much to keep wages and profits up.
posted by nasreddin at 9:46 PM on March 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

Yeah it's pretty annoying. this video of an African kid describing a Schwarzenegger was making the rounds a while back, shot by a group trying to promote the idea that not everyone in Africa is poor and destitute.
posted by delmoi at 10:16 PM on March 18, 2011

kliuless' highly informative post about Chinese involvement in Africa.
And To Help? or To Hinder? Aid for Africa in often counterproductive.
posted by adamvasco at 3:56 AM on March 19, 2011

Just came across this columnist's diatribe in the Times of India that well captures some of the flavour of discussions in this thread re: aid, post colonialism, paternalism and the unmentionable white man's burden, well put in the context of comparative economic vitality.

Mammon is the villain. At a time when Britain is teetering precariously between recovery and bankruptcy, the Department for International Development has sanctioned £300 million (around Rs 2,190 crore) of its £2.9 billion budget for aid to India. Some 90 countries are to receive British government aid but India is the biggest beneficiary. The outrage is understandable. Why, it is being asked, should the UK underwrite a country whose rulers love playing “space cadets” , a country that boasts 69 dollar billionaires (compared to Britain’s paltry 29), a country with predicted 9% GDP growth and a country that has its own overseas aid programme? Rather than Britannia playing Lady Bountiful, couldn’t the money be better utilized in ‘poverty alleviation’ and employment generation schemes at home? After all, the UK needs the £300 million more than India.

The arguments are compelling and a restive House of Commons has despatched a dozen MPs from a parliamentary select committee to travel to the boondocks to examine how the money is being spent on the ground. Is aid the euphemism for a gravy train of ‘development consultants’ and sanctimonious NGOs? Or, is British aid making a difference and “saving lives” in the four states where DFID programmes are operational? Will the withdrawal of £300 million of aid prompt the BBC to proclaim in a suitably quaking tone that India is faced with an impending “humanitarian disaster” ?

What could make the task of the visiting delegation either easier or more difficult are two awkward facts. First, the £300 million constitutes less than 1% the state and Union governments’ spend on health and welfare schemes. This makes the emotional claims of aspecial British role in preventing a Darfur in Darbhanga seem contrived, if not self-serving . Second, and this is something Britons burdened with post-colonial angst find unpalatable , India has clearly indicated it will be unmoved if the £300 million of British taxpayers’ money is spent elsewhere. This doesn’t indicate India’s “ingratitude” , as one Times columnist angrily suggested, but it does suggest realism and a rejection of a selfdegrading entitlement culture. There is something else the MPs must consider: the palliative role of aid. Both the proponents and opponents of British aid to India have used the debate to flay an imaginary opponent — the uncaring Indian elite obsessed with glitzy symbols of ‘national pride’ . The disgust may well be aesthetic but it is also laced with profound envy. The gloom and doom of Britain is being juxtaposed with the brashness of Indian resurgence. There is an emerging caricature of Indian fat cats overwhelming Oxford Street and buying up British companies. Aid gives some Britons a handle to look virtuous and feel superior.

posted by infini at 4:55 AM on March 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

The problem is that skilled workers in poorer countries generally don't want to stay there.

>Well, having to compete with free food and volunteer labor doesn't really do much to keep wages and profits up.

Seriously? The original comment about skilled workers was made in reference to nurses and doctors. And your solution is for all volunteer health care workers to close up shop, let people suffer and die, and hope that the lack of access to medical services drives up the prices of health care to the point where newly licensed health care workers can charge the rich enough for their services to make it worth staying, while the poor simply continue to suffer and die?

If that's economic development, I don't want it in my country, and I'd be surprised if most Kenyans, Sierra Leoneans, Liberians, and other African people didn't feel the same.
posted by philotes at 5:21 AM on March 19, 2011

This is a pretty weak article on what should be an interesting topic. As someone who has seen firsthand the good and the bad that come from development work by NGOs in Africa, I can't help but feel the author is burying the lede. Undoubtedly there are those who work for NGOs who cynically promote images of poor, starving and desperate people in an attempt to raise funds, but based on my experience that would be a very small minority of NGO staff. As an aside, I could point to examples I know of where NGO staff have tried to get journalists to see and write up positive success stories from their efforts only to be ignored.

Rather, it seems to me the problem lies more with journalists and journalism than NGOs. The real issues are found in the examples of stringers who don't investigate on their own and blindly regurgitate NGO press releases/reports to help them write stories, the Nightline Uganda example, etc. These are at their root, problems with journalists, not their sources. And indeed her penultimate paragraph says the problem is at heart a journalism issue. But instead of subtitling the article "Why the press love bad news about Africa" the subtitle is about NGOs.

Africa is a large, complex continent with multiple stories to be told, some positive, some negative, some tragic, some sublime. If journalists are only writing stories about poverty and misery, how is that anyone's fault but the journalists?
posted by cptspalding at 9:30 AM on March 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

rh: "The problem is that skilled workers in poorer countries geo-political regions (no matter how small) generally don't want to stay there. "

Isn't this similar to the problem in American ghettoes? The "entrepreneurs" don't want to stay around and help their community grow, they end up fleeing to be part of the man and the system?
posted by symbioid at 11:40 AM on March 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

cptspalding ("the African explorer" -- eponysterical!), I don't see your objection to the article or why you think it's "weak." The author is very critical of journalists for the same reasons you've given. Look:
Western journalists, for their part, tend to be far too trusting of aid officials, according to veteran Dutch correspondent Linda Polman. In her book The Crisis Caravan, she cites as one example the willingness of journalists to be guided around NGO-run refugee camps without asking tough questions about possible corruption or the need for such facilities ...

“If reporters were going to cover a development story it had to be easy,” remembers Gelfand, noting that the simplest sell was a celebrity visit to an aid project. ...

Even with shrinking resources, journalists can do better than this. For a start, they can stop depending so heavily, and uncritically, on aid organizations for statistics, subjects, stories, and sources. They can also educate themselves on how to find and interpret data available from independent sources. And they can actively seek out stories that deviate from existing story lines.
And those are just some examples.

What more would you have wanted the article to say?
posted by John Cohen at 7:56 AM on March 25, 2011

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