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Explaining Africa’s Need Without Damaging Stereotypes

Afropessimism. The word may be unfamiliar, but the concept won’t be.

It’s the perfect description of that view we’ve probably all encountered: that Africa is a “basket case,” a single, hopeless country, a seething pit of hunger, corruption, starvation and bottomless need.

Krish Kandiah’s interview with Michael Badriaki critiqued this perspective beautifully, providing prophetic guidance for Western aid that doesn’t make things worse.

The interview addressed perception – how well meaning mission and development agencies can, in the course of communicating about work in Africa, either inadvertently or cynically, perpetuate stereotypes that are damaging to Africans.

Posting pictures of African children starving with flies in their eyes is not the way things should be done.

People’s view of Africa will be hopelessly and dangerously distorted as a result.

But is anyone really being told that by any credible source? And is that really something that mission agencies and aid organizations can control?

Aid and mission agencies are trying, through their communications with supporters and potential supporters, to raise money, prayer and volunteers to fix problems.

In order to do that, they have to highlight to an indifferent or compassion-fatigued public that there is indeed a problem.

If the narrative or images are inaccurate or manufactured, that is deeply unethical.

But if there really are starving people, out-of-control conflicts and significant levels of poverty or infant mortality where that charity works, is it wrong to tell the world?

Yet, we must remember that Africa is not a country. It’s around 50 countries and in almost every one, the development tourist cliché – “It’s a land of contrasts” – is true.

People who agree with Badriaki would be quick to point out that grinding poverty is not the only story in any one country, never mind on the entire continent.

A continent cannot be reduced to a single experience. Moreover, anyone trying to suggest otherwise is doing the world a disservice.

But does telling the story or publishing the images of a specific context in which misery and suffering are the truth make a charity guilty of that? I don’t think so.

When the primary aim is to raise funds, action or awareness, then that is what effective communication must do.

The reason a charity providing safe drinking water to a village doesn’t tell the story of the village down the road that provided its own water is because that’s not its job. They need to tell their story, so that people will support that work.

Does the story of Africans taking charge and solving their own problems deserve to be told? Of course.

Is that the responsibility of people who have their hands full trying to raise enough support to help those in dire need? No.

Blame the media, journalists and the public for its prejudice and appetite for simplistic narratives. Don’t blame the people who are trying to help.

Areas of abuse exist, but suggesting that all charities telling these stories are part of a “benevolent hegemony that seeks to dominate and misrepresent a people’s story, so that they can extract the most out of them” is harsh and disrespectful.

It’s also unhelpful because of who will believe it. People who are yet to be convinced of the importance of helping those in need will justifiably think they’re damned if they do, damned if they don’t.

They will not be won over to the cause of helping to make the world a better place. They will be annoyed and will think, “Africa can take care of itself without my help.”

Worse, the socially conscious who care passionately about international development, and particularly progressive Christians among those communities, will perpetuate these negative narratives.

Progressives, like myself, love an epiphany that tells us how wrong we are, that affirms our sense of guilt and inadequacy just enough to make us smarter, more compassionate, in greater solidarity with the poor than we used to be.

The problem is that we will then seek to influence aid and mission agencies to act as if there are no problems in Africa, Asia, the Americas or Europe that might require money, a more just international trade and debt system or foreign expertise in places where national governments don’t have the will or resources to reach.

Western nations have a responsibility to help – and Badriaki is right, we must do it responsibly, as partners, not neocolonial masters or condescending benefactors.

But we must equally not let people in wealthy countries off the hook in facing the poverty and deprivation beyond their front doors.

The problem in the United Kingdom, United States and other wealthy societies is not that they think Africa is helpless, but that not enough people care enough to do enough to help.

Help is needed, whether in the form of fighting injustice or serving those who need some basic assistance right now, even while we build sustainable systems where people can help themselves in the future.

The enemy is not pity. It’s indifference and selfishness.

God forbid that, with the best motives in the world, we aid indifference while trying to fight condescension and pity.

Jonathan Langley works for a British mission agency and grew up in South Africa. He has interviewed missionaries, development professionals, global church leaders and beneficiaries of aid, both in the developing world and in the U.K. A longer version of this article first appeared in Christian Today and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @jontylangley.