Turn the “Africa Rising” debate back towards Africa
This has been a prime year for debating how Africa should be presented to the west. Ian Birrell lamented in The Guardian that the image presented by media and NGOs hasn’t kept up with the rapid progress made by countries such as Ethiopia or Mozambique. In June, the debate flared up on twitter & blogs between Nick Kristof of the NY Times, who highlights under-reported conflict and disasters in Africa, and a few critics who suggest that Kristof is promoting the story of Africa’s problems and ignoring its successes. And most (in)famously, 2012 will always be attached to the advocacy group Invisible Children, whose Kony2012 video promoted the “white savior” idea – whereas other NGOs like Mama Hope work to sell a more humanizing and dignified image of Africans to westerners.
I want to throw in my two cents, and suggest that while this debate is important, there’s an equally important one that these tweets, articles and videos ignore. True, we should be discussing what responsibility reporters and advocates have in relaying stories from Africa to the west. But just as relevant – especially for NGOs and aid agencies – is: what story is told about Africa in Africa?
Not being a close follower of African media, I can’t say whether a particular image is typically presented in most countries. I can say that Niger’s news was usually a pretty boring roundup of what various ministers did that day. I can also say that, at least in the Sahel countries I’ve visited, people’s perception of their own country’s prospects tends to be pretty glum. Dare I suggest (or even point to evidence) that confidence is just as important in community development as it is in financial markets?
My taxi driver the other day in Dakar is a good example. We were talking about the unmarked speed bumps, after he’d had to jam on the brakes to avoid hitting one at full speed. We mentioned a couple relatively simple solutions – signs, yellow paint – but then cynicism took over:
Him: “Well, this is Senegal.” (aka: we shouldn’t expect even simple problems fixed)
Me: “That shouldn’t be a good excuse.”
Him: “… we learn to deal with things as they are.”
That cynicism I have heard over and over throughout West Africa – in schools, in markets, even in NGO offices. This I can’t fault anyone for, since so many have so few opportunities, and it’s certainly not unique to Africa. When the barriers are huge, it’s hard to see how slowly chipping away at them will get anywhere.
But there are lots of capabilities in these poor, rural Sahel communities. I have seen people doing pretty extraordinary things with really lousy tools at their disposal. How some of those bush taxis keep running I will never know. The ingenuity of mechanics & drivers in Niger, in Senegal and in many other countries is pretty unbelievable sometimes. But their skills are rarely exalted or even acknowledged. They definitely don’t show up in NGO community asset surveys!
Just as rarely are those skills turned towards creating more sustainable solutions to problems. Mechanics can MacGyver an old Peugeot truck with the best of them. But for the most part, in Niger at least, innovation with local products or local ideas is simply undervalued, and not very rewarding for the innovators (in social or $$ terms).
There were, however, a few examples that I saw. (I’d love to hear more!)
Why is this relevant for the west? Obviously, it’s not up to the west to decide what image of Africa should be presented on the continent. But we do have cultural and political influence: eg. American movies are pretty popular here, and Obama’s visit to Ghana was highly covered in African media, including the democracy angle.
More importantly, aid agencies and NGOs are working on the ground in many African communities, but their communications are always focused outward, towards the west and the donors. Their very presence can perpetuate the white savior myth and a culture of dependence. Organizational culture can easily reflect the negative and cynical image, in part because colleagues in the west are constantly demanding sensational (read: negative) stories to market themselves above the crowd of NGOs. This organizational culture must be avoided, and NGOs have a responsibility to approach their work with a positive mindset that explicitly values and promotes the ingenuity, and possibilities, within their host communities.
Positive, inspiring stories about ordinary Africans should be told in Africa – by NGOs, by media, through school curricula, and through the grapevine. Doubtless this is happening in many countries already. When I traveled in Ghana, for example, people from all walks of life seemed far more optimistic and empowered. But in Niger I rarely saw this, and even more rarely in the areas where optimism was most needed. In schools, on rural radio and national TV, in the NGO discourse, the image presented was pretty much always the same – here’s the huge problems, and here’s how huge contributions from government or NGOs can help you. Slow progress wasn’t exalted, only big leaps – and such leaps were beyond the reach of poor rural communities.
Growing up in white, middle-class America*, we had The Little Engine that Could, we had the Founding Fathers who struggled and won against great odds, we had Bill Gates who started Microsoft in his basement (or garage, or wherever). Our language has expressions like “rags to riches” and “pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” We had heroes in sports and war and music. They were ordinary people who accomplished extraordinary things. We wanted to emulate them.
But we didn’t even need to. We also saw value in the everyday woman or man who contributed a little something to making her or his community better. And even though we knew most of us weren’t going to be rich or famous, we still (usually) felt proud and rewarded for our small, individual contributions to our communities.
Development doesn’t have to be big and game-changing. Telling the story of slow progress can help make it feel like progress, and help push it along.
I would love to hear comments on this piece. And examples of small-scale ingenuity & innovation from Africa!
*The messages and images presented to other demographic groups in the US are very different, and not always so inspiring. Many others have promoted this positive-imagery strategy in low-income neighborhoods already.