The People in Africa are Starving

Development organisations and charities like to shock us with their images. They want us to feel bad and most of all they want us to give them money.

How this practice distorts our view of a rich and multifaceted continent seems not to matter. The latest Stride edition writes that “the negative view of the Global South is reinforced in the majority of our media. News stories about the Global South usually focus on war, poverty and famine and, while these stories are deemed newsworthy, there is often a lack of positive stories or those that reveal the more diverse nature of places.”

The German documentary White Charity explores this relationship more deeply. It looks at the images charities give us of Africa through their posters. Just think about all those images of hungry, half-naked kids. Is that Africa? Unfortunately, those posters describe nicely the relationship we have with the continent. Another example are all those people who treat “Africa” as if it was a country not dinstinguishing between Togo, Congo or South Africa.

The above mentioned images are all over the public sphere and they uphold the colonial separation between black and white, educated and uneducated, rich and poor and even civilized and uncivilized. The makers of White Charity explain that “while commercial ads mainly portray fashionable dressed White people, positioned in a „civilised“ environment, charity posters mostly depict Black people in rural, impoverished circumstances.”

The documentary and its analysis is based on Postcolonial Theory and Critical Whiteness Theory. It tries to point out “colonial consistensies behind concepts. While terms are replaced, concepts and images are often only modified: the term „civilise“ for example is replaced by the term „develop“. In the term „underdeveloped“, notions of inability, passiveness, poverty, nativeness and chaos go along, similar to the notions of the term „uncivilised“. Those organizations who “help” Africa are therefore problematic because they strenghten those stereotypes towards developing countries and do not allow for them to emancipate. It is the basis of their business that there is a clear distinction between “helper” and “helpless”.

White charity “is an exemplary analysis of racism in images which has relevance far beyond the horizon of development. It supports a sharper analysis of images in commercials, print and TV.” The documentary therefore invites us to look where our perception comes from and how the colonial discourse is still part of our world-view. Similarly, Charlotte Dwyer explains in Stride that Global Educacion “challenges us to critically evaluate and be aware of our own values and viewpoints and to question those underlying assumptions.”

We all have stereotypes in our head. But we must be aware of the danger that underlies it: “Stereotypes lead to social categorisation and to distortions of reality by causing people to exaggerate differences between groups, leading us to focus selectively on information that agrees with the stereotype and ignore information that disagrees with it – tending to make people see other groups as overly homogenous, but their own group as heterogeneous.” That is why stereotypes support the proliferation of discrimination and damaging views towards certain groups based on race, sexual orientation, gender or because of disabilities. Similarly, stereotypes – as they are spread by the charity posters – upold the “patronising, paternalistic view of those in the Global South”.

It is up to us therefore to think about what images we use and to think ethically and inclusive about how we depict others – that’s the only way to fight those destructive stereotypes.

On the controversial legitimacy of development aid read also:

The Business of Helping

Charity or Fairness

Sorry but we Gotta Help Ourselves Now


5 thoughts on “The People in Africa are Starving

  1. Excellent post. I spent much of my masters exploring the relationships several African countries (Nigeria in particular) have with the rest of the world. As consumers of global news it is important for us all to remember that the news we read, see, and hear has been produced from someone else’s perspective, and is very often intended to supports someone else’s position. News is crafted as a means of influencing public opinion – anyone in the news media, public relations, marketing, or government should happily confirm this.

    Having said that, yes, of course there are places in Africa that support the stereotype du jour, just as there are in every other continent. Before describing people we have never met as “poor” perhaps we would be better served to first consider the many differences in how “wealth” and “happiness” are defined. The poster child for a charity may in fact consider him or herself to be very happy and even wealthy by his or her own standards. But that point of view doesn’t support the people and organizations using our money to plunder African resources. As long as we consider Africa to be poor, unhappy, unhealthy, unstable, and underdeveloped there will always be people selling infrastructure to Africa, offering loans to Africa with horribly voracious terms, and exploiting Africa for its wonderful diversity of resources.

    • Thanks for your enriching comment on the topic Rob, you bring out some nice additional points which have to be taken into account 🙂

  2. I think we need to see that stereotyping is merely humanities way to put things into boxes to try to achieve order out of chaos. When it is used to label something or someone as “undesirable” THEN sterotyping becomes a problem. I had never thought about the aid problem in Africa as anything other than those annoying ads on the television that make you feel guilty for living in an affluent country. After your last most interesting and informative post about this white aid problem, I went hunting for more information to clarify it in my head. As Rob says, news is just someones slant on what they have seen. As anyone who watches the crime channels will be able to tell you, witnesses are not reliable sources of the truth of the situation…they only see what they want to see in most cases and their testimony can be manipulated. News reports are often more nefarious than this…they often support some external unseen political or commercial interest that we are never privy too unless we do a bit of background hunting to find out. The same goes for “studies”. How many “studies” are actually funded by the group attempting to sell the product?

    Social media has made it a lot harder for corporations and political groups to cover up what they are doing. There is always someone, somewhere, with a camera, a phone or access to the net. Blogs allow us to learn so much more. We can discover all sorts of newsworthy stories outside our own backyard and this is one such story. Cheers for sharing it Rahel. It’s quite brave of you actually. I dare say most charities with vested interests in fundraising (and funding their own corporations and fat cat management in the process) would call you a racist for sharing this viewpoint with us. India is in the same boat as Africa. A large percentage of the population lives below the breadline of most Western countries and yet so many of them appear to be happy, healthy and more content with their position in the world than we are led to believe that they are via aid photos and posters. Cheers for sharing this Rahel…I am really enjoying these posts and being exposed to some interesting viewpoints. Again, until I read up about White Charity, I had no idea about what was happening.

    • You know, I’m writing applications for internships right now and looking at all those NGOs gets me thinking. Maybe some will not consider my application if they see this “controversial” topics of mine but then I wouldn’t be in the right place there anyway.

      You’re totally right about the role social media can play in the distorted view we get about some parts of the world … but there’s a long way to go if we look at the digital divide across and within countries.

      Thanks for all your thoughtful comments, I enjoy them every time!

      • Some researchers predict that social media in my country, China might lead to another revolution. There are even many influencial book about this, one is called ” Changing Media, Changing China”. I think it also adapts to many countries.
        But we are still not sure about whether the change will benefits the people or really meet people’s happiness demand since people all over the world have different definition on happiness. But let’s hope the positive one.
        Stereotype for me is a very familar words before I leave China for Swiss, I think, also for many people who can not get easy access to more diversided information or have never realized that it is necessary to read different perspectives of information. From my point, people, who get more chances to get to know different people and share the opinions, will be the lucky one who could have low level of stereotype or get rid of it. It’s what our ” Global Studies Program” are doing now.

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