Charity begins with the truth: Too much bad news about the developing world gives a distorted picture, says Peter Adamson

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The Independent Online
THE CUMULATIVE effect of the way in which the developing world is portrayed by charitable organisations and the media is grossly misleading. And it results in deeply held public misconceptions that are ultimately damaging to the understanding they seek to promote.

Whenever I give a talk in a school or college, I distribute a questionnaire. What percentage of the world's children, it asks, do you think are starving - defined as 'visibly malnourished'? The answer is usually 50 to 75 per cent. The real answer is 1 to 2 per cent (although invisible malnutrition is more prevalent).

What percentage of the world's families are living in such poverty that they cannot meet even their most basic needs? The answer I get is usually about 75 per cent. The real answer is 20 to 25 per cent. What percentage of the world's six to 12-year-olds start school? The answer is usually about 10 or 20 per cent. The real answer is almost 90 per cent.

Is the rate of population growth in the developing world increasing, decreasing, or staying about the same? Almost invariably, the answer is 'increasing'. In fact it is decreasing in every region of the developing world, including Africa.

Ninety per cent of people's knowledge and impressions of the developing world come from two sources: the news media and fund-raising agencies. Both are responsible for distorting the public's perception of the developing world - the one because it is in the business of reporting the exceptional; the other because it is in the business of raising money.

To take the news media first. We know from our own everyday experience that what appears on the news - the crimes, deaths, rapes and bombings - do not represent the norms of our societies. That is what makes them news. This reporting of the exceptional may not be too bad in our own societies. But when it comes to the developing world, most people have no counterweight of personal experience; they have not been there. They have no ballast - no equivalent sense of the norms in poor countries to set against the constant reporting of the exceptional. As a result, many people derive their mental and emotional images of the developing world exclusively from the reporting of its


The other main sources of information are the fund-raising agencies. But in the praiseworthy task of raising funds, the agencies understandably stress the plight, the misery, the need of the developing world. That raises money, but distorts our perceptions. The cumulative effect of so many reports of tragedies and so many appeals for donations leaves the residual impression that the poor world is only parched earth and starving children, airlifts and trucks getting food and blankets to helpless recipients, appealing boys and girls who have no future without a postal foster parent.

Many people bring to this impression of permanent tragedy an uncomfortable consciousness of their own affluence, and this guilt is often fostered by our own communications strategies. In some countries there is also a vague awareness of historical responsibility, plus an uneasy sense of what we are told is the frightening fertility of the poor. This is a potent brew. The hallucination it creates is of an oasis of affluence surrounded by an ever-growing, ever-threatening desert of hopelessness and despair. From this comes an oasis mentality, tinged with guilt and anxiety, and an irksome sense of obligation.

This is a major reason why it is more difficult to get people informed about and involved in development than in other main international issues such as the environment. We are willing to give when the manifestations of poverty are thrust before us; but we wish, for the most part, that the poor world would disappear from our consciousness, like a coin into the darkness of the collecting box.

Fund-raising, with the best intentions in the world, also fosters other, more specific distortions. First, the fact that such a high proportion of our news about the poor world comes from appeals for funds means that the public of the industrialised world acquires an exaggerated view of the role of aid in the poor world.

When I ask students 'what percentage of the poor world's income comes from overseas aid of all kinds?' the answer is usually between 25 and 50 per cent. The truth is that aid amounts to about 1 per cent of the incomes of the poor world - and less than 10 per cent of the budgets of the developing world's governments.

Second, the understandable wish to demonstrate that donor money makes a difference often results in an astonishing over-simplification of the issues. The worst examples are those that say safe water can be brought to a whole village for dollars 2 ( pounds 1.35) per person, or that a child's life can be saved for 20 cents. Such statements are not technically incorrect. But if we ask ourselves not 'what we say' but 'what is the received message', then we know much of it is simply not true. Such figures exclude many of the real costs. If it were true that '13,000 children die every day from dehydration - your 20 cents can save this life', then all 13,000 of those daily deaths could be prevented for dollars 2,500.

Another effect of this kind of simplification is that people in the developing world are often made to look stupid. When we say that dramatic differences can be made by just a few cents, we imply that we have the know-how to solve the problems and that the people in the developing world know almost nothing.

The need to show that donor money makes a difference also leads to advertisements, television news and communications of all kinds, of which the residual message is that 'nothing ever happens in the developing world unless it is organised by a white man'.

One of the worst examples of a distorted message came during the massive campaign mounted in response to the African emergency in the mid-Eighties. The public in the industrialised world donated roughly half a billion dollars in one 12-month period - one of the greatest fund-raising responses of all time. At the same time, the industrialised world's governments gave dollars 2bn in extra emergency aid to Africa. However, almost three times that sum was paid to the industrialised world by Africa in debt and interest repayments. The net flow of finance in that year was therefore out of Africa. This year the outflow is at least dollars 10bn in interest repayments alone - more than Africa spends on its health and education services.

We need to make a fundamental review of what we say to the public - or rather of what impression the public receives - if we are not to find an increasing contradiction between the need to raise funds and the need to foster deeper understanding of the problems of development. At the moment, these two aims are incompatible, indeed they may be on a collision course.

Many of the distortions in the message that the public is receiving could be corrected if more emphasis were given to the achievements of the developing world. Take the following facts. Average real incomes in the poor world have more doubled in the past 40 years - despite population growth. Under-five death rates have been cut by 50 per cent or more in every region over the past 40 years. Average life expectancy has risen by more than one third in every region of the developing world since 1950, and by much more in many regions.

The proportion of the developing world's children who complete four years of primary school has doubled from about a third to about two- thirds in the past 40 years - in spite of a 50 per cent increase in the absolute number of school-age children. And between 1970 and 1985, the percentage of people with access to a safe water supply rose from about 10 per cent to about 60 per cent in rural areas of the developing world.

Such facts and figures paper over problems and disparities. But it is undeniable that three- quarters of mankind is significantly better fed, healthier, more educated, longer-lived, and more productive than a generation ago.

If this were widely known, it could be the key to a radically different level of interest and involvement in the problems of the developing nations. A more accurate world-view would see the world as being roughly divided into four quarters. Approximately one quarter of mankind has progressed to a point of unprecedented affluence. Another half has seen significant improvement in living standards and is now at the point where basic human needs - for food, shelter, water, education, and a degree of health care - can be minimally but reliably met. The final quarter has seen little progress and remains in abject poverty, below the broken bottom rungs of the development ladder.

In other words, it could be said that we have come three-quarters of the way in the 10,000-year-old struggle to meet the basic needs of all mankind. That great human goal could be achieved within less than half a century, even perhaps in our times.

Such a view, if presented to audiences in the industrialised world, usually leads to a different question: 'If the world has come so far, why can't we go all the way? What's standing in the way of our taking the final step towards a world in which everyone's basic needs are met?'

A more accurate world view, a more positive response.

The author writes Unicef's annual 'State of the World's Children' report. This article is an abridged version of a paper being given this week to a seminar at the Annenberg Institute in Washington.

(Photograph omitted)