OXFAM’S BOOK OF LAMENTATIONS

By Tolu Ogunlesi

Oxfam, the UK charity, recently released an updated version of the Book of Lamentations. Something about how “the relentless focus on ongoing problems at the expense of a more nuanced portrait of [Africa], is obscuring the progress that is being made towards a more secure and prosperous future.”

That’s Chief Executive Barbara Stocking, as quoted by the BBC. Apparently the charity’s been doing some polling recently (in the UK), and coming up with interesting results. In one poll half of the respondents confessed that Africa conjured for them images of hunger, famine and poverty. In another poll, almost half of the 2,000 respondents thought Africa’s biggest challenge was hunger. Three out of four were suffering from ‘Africa-fatigue’ – that debilitating condition that afflicts well-meaning foreign philanthropists exposed to an endless stream of images of suffering and torment originating from the dark continent.

A distressed Oxfam has since gone ahead to launch its latest Africa campaign, in a desperate bid to shift the world’s attention from African Hunger, to African-Hunger-Backdropped-By-Stunning-African-Landscapes.

That’s, in a nutshell, the story.

It left me a tad puzzled. A w-t-f puzzlement. As in: is Oxfam for real?

Let’s even forget, for a moment, the unforgettable fact that Oxfam has probably done far more than any other organisation in propagating these images.

Let’s focus on something else that struck me about the story: the way blame is being placed squarely on the shoulders of The Images.

Oxfam appears to be saying: Put All The Blame On The Images. Not the people hanging on stubbornly to those images in the face of alternative evidence.

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.

That’s the summary of the Oxfam Lamentation. It’s

In whose interest?

The whole set-up suggests that Britain is now guilty of the sort of intellectual laziness once associated (almost solely) with America (er, sorry). Clearly the surveys say far more about the British mind than they do about the African condition. Now we know, courtesy of Oxfam, that all along we’ve been depending on a bunch of wallet-opening puppets to deliver us from ourselves.

Now the puppets are growing weary, the strings fraying, the wallet-opening mechanisms aging. Now we have to refurbish the puppets, oil the creaking joints with a new, more positive type of ‘communication’. Landscapes, not Hunger!

A mindset that elevates what the British public thinks of Africa, over and above contemporary reality, and that suggests that it is in Africa’s interest for that thinking to change, is not only faulty but dangerous as well.

To put it less mildly, who — apart from Oxfam, obviously — really cares, in 2012, what the British public thinks about a continent from which they fled in varying stages of undress a half-century ago? What’s that proverb about crying more than the bereaved?

In the 21st century are people still allowed to be zombies gobbling up everything they’re fed by a collaboration of powerful media and NGOs?

I seriously doubt that it is in Africa’s interest for Brits to change their perception of Africa. Instead I think it is totally in Britain’s interests to change its perceptions of Africa. That problem, is Britain’s, and no one else’s. If the Brits insists on seeing Africa primarily through the lens of philanthropic intervention, in 2012, good for them.

Let them stay thinking that way; let Oxfam, with its its Africa-emblazoned super-hero capes, stay convincing itself that it has a duty to alter global perceptions of Africa, while the Russians and Chineseand diaspora Africans, who must have once assumed they’d left the continent for good — boldly head out to the continent to engage in potentially more useful ways.

Alternative images

Granted that those starving-children-and-dying-mothers images form a sizable part of African exports to the West. There may be little we can do about that, as long as we have a West obsessed with delivering Africa from itself. But what about the the tens of thousands of kwashiorkor-free, English-speaking, pocket-money-receiving African students who flock to the UK annually, to study (with a good number actually returning, to continue with the lives they left behind in Lagos and Nairobi and Accra and Freetown and Johannesburg etc).

How the British public fails to permit these alternative images to displace some of the “old stereotypes” (quoting Dame Stocking) should alarm many right-thinking people, and perhaps inspire an industry of academic theses on national delusions and epidemics of ostrich-in-sand-syndromes.

If those flesh-and-blood representations of contemporary Africa somehow don’t succeed in serving as a useful counterbalance to the stereotypes, then nothing will.

“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,” Dame Stocking says.

I wish her and Oxfam the very best. Must be awful to have to take on that job of saving people from self-inflicted ignorance. In an age in which Google, Twitter and the news media lie at most fingertips, delivering, alongside stories of African suffering, narratives of determined recovery from tragedy and technology-driven change and emboldened youth and rising political awareness and growing intolerance for tyranny – is there still room for getting way with blaming with fixating on photos of begging bowls and the oxfamished children attached to them?

Kudos where due. But still…

I might also add that this is not to disparage the useful work that Oxfam has done and is still doing across the continent. The effects of aid, like AIDS, are real, no doubt. George W. Bush’s PEPFAR saved, and continues to save, millions of Africans lives.

But stories also abound of the startling stupidities and failures of aid projects whose origins lie in a mentality belonging to a world that appears to have vanished. Misguided Messiahs and their T-shirt donation and Shoe donation schemes, money-grabbing consultants, corrupt practices, high-profile-nil-value baby adoptions, etc etc.

It’s important that the Oxfams of this world do not allow themselves to get overly caught up in the myth of their impact. In the larger scheme of things, perhaps they’ve been overestimating their messianic abilities. Consider this: In his posthumously published collection of essays pan-Africanist Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem says, of Nigeria’s 2006 debt relief deal: “What kind of success is debt relief that sees Nigeria paying back over three billion dollars to Britain alone, a figure more than the total aid budget of Britain in the same year?”

You could of course argue that that is oil-rich Nigeria, and choose instead to focus on the Rwandas and Malawis where close to half the national budgets are donor-funded. And I could remind you of what the late Malawian President did with chunks of his country’s money. Or the mystery of the vanishing dollars in the Ugandan Prime Minister’s office.

I’m also somewhat surprised we’re still having this ‘African aid’ argument at the end of 2012, after the eloquent arguments of books like Dead Aid and The Fastest Billion. And after the Economist already publicly regretted its silliness.

Shame.

Is Oxfam stuck on a planet that no longer exists?

Oxfam Capital, anyone?

*

Watch out for Part 2 of this piece, focusing on how Oxfam can shift its focus from cajoling donation-weary Westerners and tap into African wealth to fund its Africa-transformation drive (not kidding).

 
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10 thoughts on “OXFAM’S BOOK OF LAMENTATIONS

  1. This is a great post, although I’ve just written a different piece making a very different point. I look forward to part 2. I think we should give Oxfam some credit though – they are at least moving the right direction and addressing what threatens to become an existential problem for UK NGOs – if not now then hopefully in the coming decades.Others are further behind. It’s a bit of a sad fact about the level of UK awareness about modern Africa but when faced with a choice of letting it be or challenging it I support an attempt to challenge it.

    http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/oxfam-has-it-right-its-time-for-aid-organisations-see-africa-differently-8437261.html

  2. Interesting article. Like you, I feel quite depressed by how little people in the UK seem to know about Africa. The image of Africa as a poor, pathetic place full of people waiting for white people to come and save them is all too common. But I think that you are being a little bit harsh on Brittish people when you say that their ignorance is self-inflicted. It is true that better information is out there but reaching it is probably beyond the capacity of many. Yes the number of people who are connecting with global information via the internet and tools such as twitter is growing, but it is still the minority. And even those who are more ‘connected’ need to filter the massive amount of information by choosing topics to take an interest in. It is just not possible to be informed about all topics. So for example, while I do know a fair bit about Africa, I could easily be criticised for being relatively ignorant about British history or whatever. Given this reality, the images which are presented via conventional media (e.g. newspapers and tv news) and by charities such as Oxfam do have a massive impact on how people view Africa. For this reason, I applaud Oxfam and other charities who are making steps (even if they seem like small steps) to describing Africa more truthfully.

    I do agree with you that gaining a more nuanced and accurate view of Africa is just as important for the UK as it might be for Africa. I worry about the sense of superiority compared to other peoples that you sometimes see in our media. But I think that it could also be important for Africa. The UK does contribute sizable chunks of money to development projects in Africa – via both the government and charities. This money has the potential to have really important impacts for many people in Africa – but if the people giving the money I(i.e. the taxpayers and/or charity donors) still think that all Africa needs is our scraps and throw-aways it will not achieve good (and may well cause harm). I believe that educating Brittish people more about Africa, will allow international development to continue to move to more useful types of aid – built on collaboration and mutual respect.

    • Uzo Ukaejiofo Great & thought provoking article. For atleast two decades now, international donors have known that the old practice of transfers to Africa, however venal and abusive, was not working- ie failing to lift countries out of poverty, and ev

      Great & thought provoking article. For atleast two decades now, international donors have known that the old practice of transfers to Africa, however venal and abusive, was not working- ie failing to lift countries out of poverty, and even by so doing harm by subsidizing and reinforcing bad governance. Swimming partially against the tide of global political and moral sympathy.

  3. The fundamental problem I have is the obvious oversight that everyone seems to have subscribed to. A quick google search returns showing information that Africa has 54 independent countries arguably more than the number of countries in Europe (depending on how u look at it). Why do we help the world refer to the continent as if there is only one country on it. I have been faced with this reality as a Nigerian studying abroad. No one talks about Nigeria or Kenya or Zambia. They all say Africa. This saddens me. I know this might be unrelated to this article, but I just had to state it.

  4. There have been plenty of critiques of the media’s representation of Africa (Binyavanga Wainaina’s Granta article being one of the best) and I hesitated before joining in with a comment here, because it’s vexed and dangerous territory, and I’m not sure I can do a particularly good job at articulating what I think. But reading your post was valuable in reigniting my thoughts on this, so perhaps its worth trying to make sense of these here.

    When I first saw Oxfam’s campaign I groaned inside – replacing bad old images of Africa with new ones. How are stunning landscapes new images? Savannahs and elephants are pretty stereotypical images too, and probably as familiar to most people as the hunger images. It’s either poverty or it’s a safari; often both. I’d have much rather it was challenged much more strongly with images of university graduates, great writers, thriving cities and all of that. Or perhaps something of all of it together – why do we have to always go for one end of an extreme? I think Jonathan’s post makes some good points too – that it’s a start, and an attempt to challenge things, although I’m not sure they’ve broken the mould as much as is being claimed with this one. But shifting thinking is a slow process, and it’ll take many more campaigns of new imagery and new captions to displace the 20 year silt of starvation, disease and Band Aid.

    But onto the main point of your post, I tend to agree with Kirsty that, while it’s true that we have to question the images that we get fed, you can’t bash people for their ignorance quite so strongly. It’s more complicated than that explanation allows. I don’t think people ‘gobble things up like zombies’ – but perhaps when there’s a steady drip drip of particular images and narratives, these things settle in the backs of minds, and when the questions come up (over a pint in the pub, or in response to a charity fundraiser on TV, or whatever) there are few (or perhaps no) other narratives and images to provide a counterpoint. Perhaps we all have a duty to be better informed about the world than we are, but sometimes that’s down to opportunity and education. Not that you have to have had benefited from many years in education to think, or think critically and differently, but that it often means you had a bit more time to think and debate these things, and be challenged by others, rather than just getting on with the everyday business of earning a living, raising a family, or whatever. I’ve frequently been caught out by people throwing the “the problem is corruption isn’t it” line at me, and struggling to find an articulate and decent response, when it’s not the time for me to give a potted history of Africa during colonial rule and since, my reading of why it’s a lot more complex than that, and why they need to appreciate X, Y, Z, etc etc.

    I’m not sure how enlightened I’d be if I hadn’t had the luxuries and opportunities of travel and study. I’ve had the privilege to travel to many countries in the continent over the last decade or so. I went with all the wrong ideas and what I understand now has been profoundly re-shaped as a result – but the result of by long, slow experience, thinking, conversations, debate, bolstered by a couple of degrees with a considerable or full bias towards studying Africa in some dimension, and by the opportunity to meet and talk to many people people (Tajudeen being a very important one, as I was incredibly lucky to work with him for a period – and learnt a lot more from talking to him and reading his postcards than I did from a lot of travel and study). That’s a position of immense privilege and opportunity. I follow as much as I can of politics and culture and music from some of the African countries I’m familiar with (and am able to devote significant professional time to learning about the continent) I have huge gaps in my understanding of other regions or histories. My knowledge of huge swathes of Asia is laughable, my grasp of the nuances of Middle Eastern politics pretty embarrassing, and I’d struggle to give a plausible account of a lot of British history.

    So I think there’s a lot in what you say, and there’s some more than fair critiques in it too. But I think we need to be a little kinder to the general public – in Britain or elsewhere – and also acknowledge that the aid/development debate is if nothing else complicated and complex, and at times pretty confusing too. Look forward to part 2, and thanks for stimulating some proper thinking this evening.

  5. Thanks for this post Tolu. I generally agree with the points you make and I often find myself cursing or shouting on trains at the images that bombard us on our TVs, train journeys and on billboards of malnourished African children. I find it frustrating that this narrative is still the dominant lens through which Africa is viewed in the UK and other western countries. Similar to this, another irritant of mine is the £3, £5, £10 solution to every problem – if you just gave that £3/month you will save the world. When people buy that message they then get, as the article refers to it, Africa fatigue.

    It does seem like a small step but I am glad that Oxfam has started this conversation. I find it strange this need to have a common and dominant narrative about a continent of 54 states – a complex place with so many people, cultures, voices and influences. We don’t expect a common dominant narrative of Europe or South Asia. Switching from hunger to landscapes is not the solution; it is just seeking another dominant narrative. I wish Oxfam, our governments and those of us who work in or are interested in international development wherever that may be spend a bit more time communicating complexity and nuance and challenging these stereotypes wherever we encounter them (don’t shout on trains, it’s not a good look).

    I take your point about the information that is freely available however I think Kirsty is right in that it is possible to have access to a lot of information but not have the skills to filter and use that information or indeed have trusted outlets that do that. In addition people will seek information that reinforces existing bias whether they be from the UK, US, Nigeria or Ghana. It’s human nature.

    I think that organisations like Oxfam and others have a responsibility to not promise things that a) they can’t deliver and b) is not their responsibility to deliver.

    I will end my long comment (sorry) by saying that the UK population is a very generous and engaged one and the portrayal of British puppets is a bit harsh. Yes the majority of the population may not know anything about African beyond the holiday at a safari park in Kenya and these images, I believe (or is it hope) that there is more of an appetite for nuance and complexity. Oxfam, the UK government, diaspora Africans, those of us who are alternative images, other international organisations all have a responsibility to challenge these stereotypes and not resort to communicating to the lowest common denominator.

    I do applaud them for starting this conversation (despite switching dominant narratives) and applaud you for your critical piece.

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  7. I agree with Tolu that Oxfam has a lot to answer for, in spite of the succour it has provided over the years.

    However, I think we need to be a tad more nuanced about public perceptions of Africa in the UK. The FCO’s own website estimates that there are over three million Nigerians living in the UK, but doesn’t disaggregate those who are first, second, third generation etc. You’d imagine however that close to the majority now are second gen. Added to all the other African-origin British people, and we might start to appreciate that its a bit reductive to talk of “British” attitudes to Africa in any singular way, regardless of what Oxfam does or doesn’t do through its latest fundraising campaigns.

    Tolu also seems to have fallen for the Dambisa Moyo “China-good, Europe-bad” argument. Certainly, China is much more focused on practical infrastructure development – building roads and railways – as part of concessionary deals to access natural resources on the continent, but at what cost? How much are they paying for the natural resources? And how much does China’s laissez-faire approach to governance help or hinder accountability pressures placed upon Africa’s leaders? And I wonder if Tolu also thinks that having tens or hundreds of thousands of illegal Chinese workers (many of whom are prisoners) up and down the continent taking away jobs from locals is also a good thing!

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