Monday, March 21, 2011

Advertising, Media, and a Book

How do we portray Africa in the media? And how should we?

I was pointed this week to this article in the Columbia Journalism review, and some of the blog commentary on the topic. Rothmyer writes about the tendency of NGOs to exaggerate the extent of problems, emphasis negative stereotypes and spread a gloomy image of Africa in the name of securing funding:
The main reason for the continued dominance of such negative stereotypes, I have come to believe, may well be the influence of Western-based non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and international aid groups like United Nations agencies. These organizations understandably tend to focus not on what has been accomplished but on convincing people how much remains to be done. As a practical matter, they also need to attract funding. Together, these pressures create incentives to present as gloomy a picture of Africa as possible in order to keep attention and money flowing, and to enlist journalists in disseminating that picture.

Over the past thirty years, NGOs have come to play an increasingly important role in aid to Africa. A major reason is that Western donors, worried about government corruption, have channelled more funds through them. In the mid-1970s, less than half a dozen NGOs (like the Red Cross or CARE) might operate in a typical African country, according to Nicolas van de Walle, a professor of government at Cornell, but now the same country will likely have 250.
This explosive NGO growth means increasing competition for funds. And according to the head of a large US-based NGO in Nairobi, “When you’re fundraising you have to prove there is a need. Children starving, mothers dying. If you’re not negative enough, you won’t get funding.” So fierce is the competition that many NGOs don’t want to hear good news. An official of an organization that provides data on Somalia’s food situation says that after reporting a bumper harvest last year, “I was told by several NGOs and UN agencies that the report was too positive.” 
She also criticizes journalists:
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.
Rothmyer's article is hardly breaking new ideas, a decade ago, PM Tony Blair told us that poverty in Africa is a "scar on our consciences" and just last week I wrote about the media's favouritism of photogenic causes. News and media are often blamed for perpetuating the exciting negative stories at the expense of reporting moderate economic growth. See the CNN Effect. But recently attention has turned away from just journalists and towards NGOs, Rothmyer;s article is well written and effective, I recommend you go read it all

Good Intentions are Not Enough have talked about NGO adverts, and how it is normally assumed that the best way to encourage donations is to shock the audiences with appalling conditions and pictures of suffering and tragedy:
Is it any surprise that when constantly bombarded with pictures like this, people think that all children in Africa are either starving or fighting? Some more interesting thoughts about Poverty Porn.

And the effect of all this advertising on public perceptions? VSO's comprehensive report The Legacy of Live Aid provides the data; their summary is below, and the second point in particular I find very worrying.

Are donor funds just getting harder to extract because we have desensitized the public to violence and poverty? Should we uphold the dignity of those people aid agencies are trying to help, even at the expense of helping less of them? Maybe we are being short sighted, more short term funding that involves encouraging negative stereotypes might hinder aid efforts by scaring away investors and discouraging economic growth? I have yet to see a practical solution.

In the midst of all this bad news, I point you towards the new book Getting Better: Why Global Development Is Succeeding—And How We Can Improve the World Even More which is a story of successes. Charles Kenny writes about how, in much of Africa, development is working: life expectancy is increasing, child mortality is decreasing, people are earning and saving more. He goes on to detail how we could be doing a lot more by increasing funding for projects that have been 'proven' to work, Kenny does not including projects aimed and spurring economic growth in this, he focuses on health and education. From Poverty to Power have a well thought out and comprehensive review of this book.

Wronging Right's solution? Reality TV.


  1. Great set of links to keep me busy :)

    You write:

    He goes on to detail how we could be doing a lot more by increasing funding for projects that have been 'proven' to work, Kenny does not including projects aimed and spurring economic growth in this, he focuses on health and education.

    I completely accept that growth is important, but what interventions apart from, like, tariff reduction or whatever (which is itself something that doesn't cost any donor money) have been 'proven' to increase growth? I'm not asking that rhetorically, I just think I don't know enough about it.

  2. In `Getting Better', Kenny argues that there is nothing that has been proven to increase growth, and while I am not finished reading it, he makes a good argument.

    The sort of intervention I was thinking of were along the lines of developing infrastructure, creating jobs and promoting good governance - I am all for vaccines and education definitely, but that other interventions have not been proven to work is not an argument to eliminate them completely, it is an argument to get better data and evaluation techniques.

  3. I guess I agree, but in The White Man's Burden I seem to recall something about infrastructure being worse than 'not proven to work', it's more in the realm of 'proven to not work'. The reason being no one gives aid money for maintenance because repairing a road not 'sexy' in the same way that building a road is. But to really advance this argument I'd have to reread The White Man's Burden, and I've returned the copy I read to our mutual friend Mr DB.

    If you want to argue that we should change the whole philosophy of aid giving, and remove annoying earmarking of money so that aid agencies aren't stymied by the whims of the donors, then I'm completely on board with you. Then I'd be more receptive to infrastructure projects being a good idea. But that's going to take some time, if it happens at all, and in the meantime infrastructure projects with aid money seem to be very inefficient.

    But, again, let me stress that this argument is based on a half remembered section of The White Man's Burden read while on a sleepless bus ride from Niagara Falls to New York.