Oxfam has it right, it's time for aid organisations to see Africa differently

We need to move past the stereotypical images of poverty and helplessness

Share
Related Topics

Last night millions of Britons watched the incredible images of the BBC’s new Africa series. The programme sought out the kind of stunning backdrops that would surprise and captivate – forcing viewers to see the continent in a new light. Now Oxfam is trying to do a similar thing in order to solve an image problem that threatens to undermine support for efforts to end global poverty.

The conundrum for Oxfam and others looks a bit like this: “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 - but we know this recipe seems to work.”

The negative connotations that come with the term “Africa” are something that many people working on global poverty have been frustrated by for a while. Anger over “poverty porn” and the damaging image it projects have long been the basis of calls for a change of tack. Now it seems Oxfam has stepped up to the plate: their See Africa Differently campaign encourages people to think again about the continent and the people who live there.  It might not seem like a big risk but those who balance the books tell us it’s our hearts, not our minds, that control the charitable impulse.

Change of tack

Financial support enables charities to keep delivering the sort of programmes that save hundreds of thousands of lives each year. Political support helps persuade politicians to take actions which improve the lives of millions. Both are vital if you believe that for as long as we retain the capacity to help the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world, we should. So why is Oxfam taking a risk by departing from the tried and tested?

A quick root through the existing work on attitudes to this sort of thing reveals a very confused public. Polling published over Christmas shows that 76 per cent of the UK public say they know “not very much or nothing at all” about aid. We know too that people feel they’ve been giving money for a generation now but not much appears to have changed. The strength of support for ‘aid’ or ‘development’ varies in line with the amount of knowledge a sample has. Ask the average UK citizen if we spend too much on aid they might well say yes. Ask how much we spend and the answer  could well be ten times the true figure. It’s no surprise then that most people’s understanding of terms like “Africa” are fairly shallow and based on distressing images found in humanitarian news reports, Comic Relief and fundraising adverts. 

These pictures of despair mask a story of progress.  Unless you’re lucky enough to travel there you might not realise that they mask the potential of a land bigger than China, India and the US put together, in which over 50 cities have million-plus populations and mobile phones are used effectively for banking, pharmacy and farming. They mask a consumer market worth over $800billion, airlines that invest in state of the art Dreamliners and economies that are set to be worth over $2 trillion by 2020. That’s a lot of iPods, coffee machines and middle class miscellany that don’t fit the fundraising script.

A nuanced Africa

Oxfam’s campaign is a brave one, for two reasons. First, it recognises the problems caused by putting the 80s Africa on repeat for the last 25 years and seeks to shift the tone away from poverty and despair to one of hope. If we want to pursue the reality of Africa as just another place - with high rise offices and high street shops then we will need to find a more subtle rallying call.

Second, the domestic political climate is fairly hostile. Many people returned to work to headlines suggesting that we should give a chunk of the aid budget to the military and next week the Spectator magazine features aid on its frontpage, making the bold claim that “it doesn’t help”.

The battle lines are fairly well defined for a year in which Britain chairs the G8 and steps up its aid budget towards 0.7 per cent of GDP.  The case for aid spending is a cocktail of moral imperative, strategic diplomacy or a canny commercial investment. The case against is usually based on perceptions of inefficiency, question marks over results and the prioritisation of poverty reduction according to borders.  One thing that even the most outspoken critics of aid agree on is the need to update people’s perceptions of Africa. Oxfam has risen to that challenge, but whether the gamble pays off remains to be seen.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Private Client Solicitor - Oxford

Excellent Salary : Austen Lloyd: OXFORD - REGIONAL FIRM - An excellent opportu...

Austen Lloyd: Clinical Negligence Associate / Partner - Bristol

Super Package: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL - SENIOR CLINICAL NEGLIGENCE - An outstan...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Consultant - Solar Energy - OTE £50,000

£15000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Fantastic opportunities are ava...

Recruitment Genius: Compute Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Compute Engineer is required to join a globa...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Syrian refugee 'Nora' with her two month-old daughter. She was one of the first Syrians to come to the UK when the Government agreed to resettle 100 people from the country  

Open letter to David Cameron on Syrian refugees: 'Several hundred people' isn't good enough

Independent Voices
Amjad Bashir said Ukip had become a 'party of ruthless self-interest'  

Could Ukip turncoat Amjad Bashir be the Churchill of his day?

Matthew Norman
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project