One of the many reasons that I committed to doing this blog was to not only keep my family and friends updated on my life and adventures in Africa but it was also to change people’s very outdated perceptions of this glorious continent.

Many of those who I spoke to about my journey were all under similar illusions that this is a war torn, poverty, drought-stricken land filled with people dying of famine. While this is a perception that has been true at time, it has been mainly conjured by the media, governments and even development projects such as I am involved with. There is entirely different prospective that people are not seeing and understanding. Africa is not the Third World continent that it was  and still is portrayed as in the Western World’s media.

And please note that it Africa is a continent….not just one country but 54! Granted this number changes on what seems like almost a monthly basis as new boundaries are defined by either war or democratic efforts. Yet, all of the 54 countries that currently make up the continent of Africa are still growing and developing systems and infrastructures equivalent to those found in the Western hemisphere. There are many schools of thought on how best that this development should take place. Some are strong proponents for the assistance provided through foreign aid; while others argue the success of African countries who have done it on their own without the complications and patronizing attitudes of the west. Many of the volunteers that I know agree with me that the current system of development aid simply doesn’t work or have the intended results. But that is an issue for another blog.

Back to the topic at hand, Africa is an amazing, beautiful continent filled with 54 countries that are so unique in landscape, culture and life. Please stop thinking about it as only a land of famine, poverty and war. Change your perspective, it is the best thing that you can do for those who are in more vulnerable situations. Use the internet to search and learn about the unique beauty of landscape and people that are just waiting for you to discover. The following post which I found on the on-line version of the Toronto Star features an article about Oxfam’s campaign to change perspectives as well.

Oxfam ad campaign ‘reimagines’ Africa, draws criticism

Oxfam2Africa is starvation, hunger and poverty. That’s how the vast majority of British residents answered when they were asked about how they view Africa in a survey commissioned by the influential charity Oxfam. So Oxfam figured it was time for the continent to be re-imagined, in a manner of speaking, and help locals in Britain see Africa through a different lens. To that end, Oxfam kicked off 2013 with a new ad campaign highlighting Africa’s beautiful scenery. The ads depict lovely waterfalls, fruit markets and lush landscapes. At the time, Oxfam’s then-chief executive, Dame Barbara Stocking, told BBC News, “We want to make sure people have a really better balanced picture of what’s happening in Africa. Of course we have to show what the reality is in the situations in those countries. But we also need to show the other places where things are actually changing, where things are different.” “Let’s Make Africa Famous for Its Epic Landscapes, Not Hunger,” one ads reads. Another: “Let’s Make Africa Famous for Its Food Markets. Not Its Food Shortages.” Oxfam1 Oxfam3Oxfam official Nick Futcher said in a phone interview from London that the campaign was meant to coincide with this month’s G8 meeting in the U.K. Oxfam, which has an annual marketing budget of $6 million, spent about $1.2 million on the campaign, Futcher said. Futcher said preliminary surveys of about 1,000 respondents suggest the campaign was a success. “The percentage of people who believe that the global poverty problem can be solved has gone up from 60 per cent in our survey to 75 per cent,” he said. The local press in the U.K. covered the unorthodox ad campaign, and reader reaction was mixed. “I think it’s a great campaign, but what I found a bit upsetting and annoying is that Oxfam is one of the organisations that has spent a great part of its history creating the very stereotype that it is now criticising,” said one reader on The Guardian’s website. “Fair enough they have changed their mind but I would like to see just a touch of humility and acceptance of responsibility on their part for the image that they had a hand in creating in the first place.” I read Oxfam’s Futcher that comment. “It would be hypocritical to say that we’ll never show people in need again, but I think this campaign really succeeded in convincing people to look at Africa differently,” Futcher said. “You have certain ads for certain jobs. I think you’d have to go pretty far back in Oxfam’s history to find images that show people without dignity or children in hopeless situations.” Nigeria-based journalist and Huffington Post contributor Tolu Ogunlesi has offered stronger criticism. “Am I alone in thinking Oxfam’s lamentations suggest a British public that is at the mercy of what they are fed. Helpless Brits who somehow cannot – despite all their efforts – rise beyond the bombardment of pity-evoking images of Africa. One might as well rephrase Dame Stocking as follows: ‘Oh poor helpless people of Britain, all they’re being fed is harrowing, unhelpful images of Africa. We need to stop that. We need to feed them something different. We need to change their diet.'” If Futcher could do the ad campaign again, he’d do things slightly differently. “What was missing for donors was, ‘what do I do next?'” he said.
Rick Westhead is a foreign affairs writer at the Star. He was based in India as the Star’s South Asia bureau chief from 2008 until 2011 and reports on international aid and development. Follow him on Twitter @rwesthead

3 thoughts on “Changing the perception of Africa one blog at a time

  1. Very insightful. I can’t help but ask the following: What is the fall out of African being regarded as a “have-not” country”? Are Africans being preceived internationally as being less educated and capable – Is this holding citiziens back? Is Oxfam’s objective to show Brits that their donations are not just going into a money pit?

    1. Gillian,

      Great questions that I will attempt to answer as best as I can from my limited knowledge and perceptions.

      First, I will speak to what I perceive to be the fall out of countries in Africa being regarded as “have-not”. Western countries in providing aid come with a continuing patriarchal attitude of believing that they in their worldly knowledge know what is best for both the governments and citizens of the African countries that they assisting. These patriarchal attitude forces governments and agencies to accept funds or resources that can only be used in very strictly defined ways which have been defined not by those in need but by the giver.

      An understandable analogy that I would use would be it is very like when your grandmother keeps giving you socks every year when you live in Bali and would never wear them. The attitude is that we know best and here you go, take what we give you and use it whether it is really needed or going to make a difference or not! I have seen a number of examples since I have come here of credible donor agencies such as Global Fund and World Bank having supported projects, yet the funding is not being utilized in a way that it is achieving any difference. The country coordinating committees struggle to “burn” through these funds for many reasons: 1) appropriate government agencies are disengaged from the project or have other projects to focus on; 2) the project’s focus is not really addressing the targeted demographic; 3) meeting the project’s terms and conditions means that you are only putting a band-aid on a situation that requires a drastically different approach. And the cold reality is with these funds in particular is use them as prescribed or you pay them back with interest.

      And this leads to the answer to your second question. Yes, the perception that Africans are less educated and capable then those from the Western World is definitely holding them back both within their own countries and in World. This continues to amaze me as these are people who speak two, three or more languages fluently. In Canada we struggle with two languages and a small majority of the population who can actually speak both fluently. You tell me who is more capable?

      The education system here is similar and some cases superior to North America’s yet the perception remains that it is substandard. People are told that they are capable of leading their governments and institutions without a Western education. And how is this relevant? Why should Africa be like North America or Europe? Personally, it would seem rather silly for any or all of the 54 countries in Africa to be just like the members of the EU, Canada or the United States. Africa is Africa! The cultures, traditions and way of life are unique to here. Why does the Western World continue to try to make it into a clone of systems that aren’t working out so well for them either? In my opinion, misery loves company.

      Okay, enough rant for now! Aren’t you sorry that you asked?

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