Instead of image-laundering, this is what Oxfam should be doing

In July 2009 a group of people gathered in Accra, Ghana to launch an “African Grantmakers Network” – “a continent-wide network of African grant-making organizations that facilitates networking and experience-sharing among established and emerging African philanthropic institutions.”

Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi, then the Executive Director of the African Women’s Development Fund (and now the First Lady of Nigeria’s Ekiti State), is quoted as saying, “The story of Africa’s development has been told many times over with great reference to the disasters but little if any to the contributions of Africans who work to create change, to shape a new historical narrative of hope, dignity, peace and prosperity to all of the continent’s citizens. The AGN is born of these efforts. It seeks to build on the rich tradition of philanthropic giving in Africa.”

The Network has been active, since then.

It’s a new face of Africa, no doubt. The helpless, hopeless continent determined to send a strong message regarding the agency of those who call it home.

African agency

I think that somehow, the Oxfams of this world get so carried away by the salvation they bring to the helpless peoples of Africa, that they lose sight of the concept of African agency. Once you realise this you understand why Oxfam appears trapped in that irritatingly paternalistic mode of thinking. Saving Africa’s starving children (by providing food) and saving Africa’s saddening image (by providing images of epic landscapes) have this in common is this: they both rely largely on an obliteration of a sense of African agency.

And herein lies my argument: what is required for Oxfam is for it to first of all acknowledge the agency of African governments and individuals (acknowledging is the all-important prelude to employing international pressure to nudge these governments into becoming more responsible). Without this acknowledgement, the embarrassing campaigns will continue.

The idea behind that the African Grantmaking Network is obviously for Africans themselves to take charge of the do-gooding around the continent – a venture that has typically been left in the hands of outsiders. From Biafra to Ethiopia to Darfur to Congo.

Oxfam needs to hear this: the money required to ‘save’ Africa is available, right here, right now, on the continent. We only need to find innovative ways to locate that wealth, and tap into it. There are pockets of substantial African goodwill to be drilled into with the same enthusiasm with which the continents oil-wells are being drilled.

My suspicion is that African monies — whether stolen or earned legitimately — now have greater reason to stay behind on the continent and do interesting things. Unlike the days when the only viable option was the Swiss banking industry.


Pan-African businesses are emerging in a manner that was unimaginable a decade and half ago.

Nigeria’s UBA now has branches in 19 African countries. Nigeria’s Oando Plc is now quoted on the Johannesburg and Toronto Stock Exchanges. And Africa’s richest man, Aliko Dangote is currently expanding operations to almost a dozen African countries. Mobile phone company Globacom has pushed out from Nigeria into Benin and Ghana, and is preparing to launch in Cote d’Ivoire.

Africa’s richest persons and biggest businesses are extending their spheres of influence beyond their home countries – South Africa invading Nigeria, Nigeria invading everywhere else. Much of that influence is of course currently commercial – business interests taking root in new markets, creating more wealth – but there’s no doubt that the philanthropic impulse is not far behind.

Three years ago Theophilus Danjuma, a retired Nigerian Army General, decided to put $100m of his money (reportedly part of the proceeds from the sale of an oil block) into a brand new charity, the TY Danjuma Foundation.

Dangote, who already spends millions of dollars annually within — and outside — Nigeria on everything from women empowerment to flood relief to polio eradication and job creation will no doubt soon start extending his corporate social responsibility to all of those countries in which he operates (if he hasn’t already).

Tony Elumelu is passionately pushing the gospel of Africapitalism. His foundation is combining investment and philanthropy in the lives of smallholder farmers in far-away Tanzania.

The Nigerian woman touted as the world’s richest black woman, Folorunsho Alakija, has got her own foundation.

Here’s my idea: How hard can it be to convince these billionaires, and others like them across the continent, to extend their charitable giving in a manner similar to the way their business ambitions are expanding?

Businessman Mo Ibrahim annually offers $5 million (payable over ten years) to African leaders who demonstrate statesmanship. Thrice in the six years since the award was launched no one has been found worthy.  That’s $15 million available to be put to other uses, for the good of the continent.

This is where the Oxfams of this world could consider stepping in.


Instead of focusing its energy on selling images of starving children (which are apparently supposed to be necessary for convincing Western citizens), and instead of burdening itself with the task of selling landscapes as atonement for decades of selling suffering), perhaps Oxfam might be more useful building partnerships and alliances with these African billionaires, with the aim of helping them use their money to bring change across the continent.

So, instead of obsessing itself with what Brits think of Africa, Oxfam should use its considerable clout (and there’s no doubting the fact that Oxfam’s decades of working on the ground in trouble-ridden spots gives it experience and clout which may be unavailable to local operators) to connect these businessmen with the challenges that require their wealth. My most recent job was with the British Council in Nigeria, and I know how influential British organisations can be on the continent — in terms of gaining access to the people that matter, in terms of goodwill capital.

I doubt that Aliko Dangote would need a lot of convincing to donate relief materials to Darfur, or Somalia. Not when the Dangote Foundation already has experience donating to flood victims in Pakistan and explosion victims in the Congo. You can be sure that Mr. Dangote does not need to shocked into giving with images of suffering lives or stunning landscapes.
And, come to think of it, donating to philanthropic causes in South Sudan might actually make it easier for him to get a foothold when he decides that the country needs a Dangote cement factory.

There should be no shame whatsoever in mixing capitalist and philanthropic ambitions. The West has been doing that forever, no?

So that’s my challenge to Oxfam. Forget about the images. Drop the corel-drawn pretensions. Forget about those British-public-perceptions-of-Africa that alarm you. Spare the weary Brits, thank them for all their help thus far (and I wholeheartedly acknowledge the generosity of the British public) and let them save their pennies and pounds. A struggling Britain too needs all the help it can get.  The energy spent hounding Brits to donate should be spent instead sweet-talking Africa’s billionaires into building philanthropic empires. The continent desperately awaits its own Rockefellers and MacArthurs and Gates.

So, dear Oxfam, reach out to Africa’s richest men and women. Seek to build partnerships with them. Sell yourselves as the experienced-players-in-trouble-situations that you are.

Everyone will be happy. You’ll get your work done, they’ll get the satisfaction that comes from doing good with their considerable wealth. And expanding their influence across a continent that offers the considerable business opportunity everywhere they turn.

And, now that I think about it again, it is not only Africa’s billionaires who can make a difference! Late last year a friend of mine launched a crowd-funding site in Nigeria. It is based on the belief that Nigerians, like other Africans, are never too oxfamished to give generously.

This is my challenge to Oxfam: Like the African Grantmaking Network, make every effort to “build on the rich tradition of philanthropic giving in Africa.”



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.


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).