In marketing campaigns for many NGOs, Africa is often represented as needy and in desperate need of our help. The photos and language used in many campaigns provoke feelings of pity. It is difficult to see past this single story of life in Africa (Adichie, 2009).
While traveling to London on the train, I noticed a poster promoting Christian Aid. It popped up everywhere that day, even when I went to the toilet it glared at me from the back of the cubicle door! I noticed an almost identical poster promoting Save the Children.
Both of these NGO marketing campaigns followed the same formula,
-Terrible problem = “Malaria kills a child every 45 seconds”.
-Simple solution = Text NET to 81400. Send a net, save a life”.
These adverts appeal to the British public to become heroic lifesavers for just three pounds. Prior to reading the advert, you almost certainly indulged in something unessential, like a cup of coffee, for the same price. The NGO sells something more honourable and glorious. They sell you the ego-boosting feeling of becoming a knight in shining armour. Their strategy is to ensure that you realise your power. You spend a tiny amount, type four letters in a text message, click send, and voila… like waving a magic wand, you just helped to save Africa. The campaign’s message is ‘we in the West have power, they in Africa do not’.
I am sure these NGOs are working zealously to reduce poverty and yearn to see people freed from oppression. I am confident that people in their marketing teams are educated and compassionate. I realise they are raising funds to support what they truly believe to be good change. However, by constantly portraying Africa as a place of corruption, catastrophes and chaos, is it not insolent towards the very people they want to see emancipated? Moreover, could it be said that this type of representation is supporting cultural imperialism? (Escobar, 1995). What does it do to us as British citizens and how does it shape our identity? Does it emphasise the differences between us (rich North vs. poor South) rather than the similarities? (Adichie,2009)
Mocking western portrayals of Africa Binyavanga Wainaina writes,
“Remember, any work you submit in which people look filthy and miserable will be referred to as the ‘real Africa’… Do not feel queasy about this: you are trying to help them to get aid from the West” (Wainaina, 2005).
By showing only poor women and children, aid agencies know exactly which style of discourse and photography will pierce our hearts and make us dip in to our purses,
“Like the fly-infested and emaciated black child that is so often used by international news agencies, the bare-footed African woman Sells. Without her uttering a word, this poor woman pulls in financial resources” (Everjoice J.Win,2004, pp 61)
This attitude publicised in NGO campaigns is exploitative and dishonest. It subliminally informs the West that we are saviours who must use our power to save people in developing countries because they cannot save themselves (Cole, 2012). Conversely, in this article on Nicholas D Kristof’s blog, Bishop Taban from South Sudan says, “Too many people have died in my country, but millions more would have died if the American people and churches had not sent aid … we need continued involvement from our American brothers and sisters to ensure our nation survives its infancy.” Clearly Taban feels as though he must support and replicate Kristof’s western-style reporting of South Sudan.
By constantly representing people as poor and passive, is it not disrespectful to the agency of the people in Africa? It suggests, the world is nothing but a problem to be solved by western enthusiasts (Cole, 2012). The words and photos in these marketing campaigns reinforce Western stereotypes that African is a place of poverty and suffering (Fisher, 2012) and they persist in portraying “pernicious stereotypes and tropes that dehumanize Africans” (Seay,2012). Can these NGOs break out of their narrow moulds of advertising and start showing Africans and African countries in their fullness and complexity? (French, 2012). Can these NGO marketing teams find a way of raising funds and also raise consideration towards the dignity of African people?
Adichie, C., 2009. The danger of a single story (Available Online) Available at : <http://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story.html> [Accessed 12th November 2012]
Cole. T., 2012. The White Saviour Industrial Complex. The Atlantic.(Online) March 21st 2012. Available at: <http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/03/the-white-savior-industrial-complex/254843/?single_page=true> [Accessed 12th November 2012]
Escobar, A., 1995. Encountering Development. West Sussex: Princeton University Press.
Fisher, M., 2012. How Should the Media Cover Africa? The Atlantic. (Online) July 3rd 2012 Available at: <http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/07/how-should-the-media-cover-africa-nick-kristof-debates-an-african-critic/259347/> %5BAccessed 12th November 2012]
French, H. 2012. More on Covering Africa. A glimpse of the world (Blog) April 26th 2012. Available at: <http://www.howardwfrench.com/2012/04/more-on-covering-africa/> %5BAccessed 12th November 2012]
Seay, L, 2012. How Not to Write About Africa. Foreign Policy (Online) April 25, 2012. Available at:<http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2012/04/25/how_not_to_write_about_africa?page=full> %5BAccessed 12th November 2012]
Wainaina, B. How to Write About Africa. Granta. (Online) 2005. Available at: <http://www.granta.com/Archive/92/How-to-Write-about-Africa/Page-1.> %5BAccessed 12th November 2012]
Win, E., 2004. Not very Poor, Powerless or Pregnant: The African Woman Forgotten By Development. IDS Bulletin Vol 35(4): 61-64