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Reimagining Africa: The Problem of Western Aid

January 5, 2013
Oxfam's New "Make Africa Famous" Campaign Poster.

Oxfam’s New “Make Africa Famous” Campaign Poster.

A new report by the British group Oxfam argues that continual use of images of starving Africans has undermined the effectiveness of aid appeals. Oxfam chief executive Barbara Stocking observed that,

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; it’s a natural instinct to turn away from suffering when you feel you can do nothing to alleviate it.

The report was accompanied by a new “Food for All” campaign calling on us (who the us is remained undefined) to “make Africa famous for its epic landscapes, not hunger.”

This I think is welcomed first step. I regularly ask students in my Third World Politics class to complete a short survey listing the first three things they think of when they hear “Africa.” Oxfam did the same thing, and their top result was “hunger.” My results are included in the following word cloud, which increase the size of the word according to the number of responses received.

Student Perceptions of Africa Wordcloud

Student Perceptions of Africa Wordcloud

The results are striking. Images of Africa are dominated by the very messages promoted by aid agencies for the past thirty years: hunger, HIV/AIDS, civil war, and so on. In a sense, NGOs like Oxfam have become victims of their own success. Images of starving Africans provided a powerful mechanism to raise funds for African relief. But Westerners have now become desensitized to those images. The result is a feeling of frustration and a sense that “Africa’s problems” are too big for anyone to really handle.

Thus Oxfam is now trying to reframe our understanding of Africa, promoting “practical solutions” and success stories. It’ll be a long slog, as I think the “hungry, poor, desperate Africa” narrative is now deeply rooted in the Western psyche.  Still, it’s a good start.

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