Keeping Africa poor and disenfranchised is big business for some NGOs, and for those few invested in prolonging poverty.

The facebook status update reads: “Our home for 12 years and where I first encountered grinding poverty…..”

The linked attachment takes us to the headline, ‘Hope turns to dust in Niger’, and the content found therein is an indepth ‘report’ into the  ‘ignominy’ of this impoverished, suffering of this so stated obscure nation.

It’s enough to leave you in tears … of frustration … because the article is not based on truth but opinion and conjecture. The  journalist is a free press blogger – I’ve nothing against bloggers, but I do have an issue with opinion being made to sound like news and fact.

Niger is actually not as dire the writer paints it to be – in 2012, Niger’s economy centers on subsistence crops, livestock, and some of the world’s largest uranium deposits. Agriculture contributes about 40% of GDP and provides livelihood for about 80% of the population. Niger also has sizable reserves of oil, and oil production, refining, and exports are expected to grow significantly between 2011 and 2016. Children in Niger now routinely are vaccinated for measles, and also get vitamin A drops to prevent blindness and death, technology and innovation is beginning to bring about health and education reform accross the country.

What’s worrying is not so much that the article is unbalanced in its view of Niger, but that the person sharing the link across Facebook – the author of the ‘grinding poverty’ update - is a well known Australian fundraiser for a respectable charity organisation.

I’m not sure just how conscious this particular person is of what impact her status update may have on increasing negative perceptions of Africa amongst her Australian friends, nor do I have any proof whether she, by telling the world of how dire the situation is, is aiming to sustain the belief that Africa is doomed, dying, forgotten and therefore in need of immediate and continuous rescuing.

She may have the best intentions, and she is certainly one of the hundreds of tireless aid workers, generous NGO founders and energetic charity fundraisers that I’ve met in my time. Some have convinced me of their deep desire to do good for those living in poverty or ill health in Africa. Why? Because they’re happy to walk out of Africa if and when the situations they work in were to improve, and they’re the first to celebrate any and all good news about the continent.

However there is a percentage  – including a few Africans thrown into the mix – who I’ve found shun any good news stories about the region and actively promote the image of a failed continent.

Fearing a drying up of the charitable funds they themselves depend on  to live, they market a perception of the continent that constantly recreates Bob Geldof’s ‘Live Aid’ romanticism of African despair.

Julie Cowdroy, an ambassador for Opportunity International Australia – a microfinance NGO that I deeply respect, states that for years, it has been commonplace for poverty-driven NGOs to utilise images of malnourished children as well as desolate and despondent people in their campaigns to raise awareness and funding.  Known in development circles as “poverty pornography”, it communicates a hopeless situation of disrepair.

“These images suggest that those who live below subsistence lead a pitiful and wretched existence. Yet while there are countless stories of heartbreak and defeat amongst the extreme poor, does this one-sided appeal to our sympathies properly reflect the whole story of those suffering?”

“NGOs who portray the world’s most disadvantaged in such a manipulated light are reinforcing a crude “us and them” divide to the wider public, namely, that ‘they’ are entirely and utterly dependent on ‘us’.”

Julie goes on to say that this message is a narrative that is an absolute myth on two counts. First, it strips the poor of the capacity, ability, power and sheer determination they possess to work towards an end to extreme poverty in their own lives. Anyone who has witnessed poverty firsthand, will readily acknowledge that among their numbers are some of the strongest willed, most tenacious people one could hope to meet. Of the 1.4 billion living in extreme poverty around the globe, there are countless unsung heroes.

The true image of Africa … strong, resilient and endlessly cheerful regardless of the circumstances

Secondly, poverty porn negates the fact there are many projects across the developing world where the core business of anti-poverty agencies is to draw upon existing resources of impoverished communities. This capacity building approach to development identifies and accesses opportunities, and consequently, the men, women and children who are living in extreme poverty become agents of change, rather than external parties. This positions the disenfranchised in a place of power over their own lives.

“The challenge for anti-poverty agencies is to effectively appeal to human sympathies in order to draw attention to the plight of the poor, while ensuring their subjects are conveyed as a dignified people determined to see an end to endemic poverty.”

Further to that, aid workers and charity fundraisers themselves must examine the reasons they’re in the roles they’ve chosen – if the truth reveals that the need to keep an overly negative perception of Africa is to ensure a steady stream of income, then they have become complicit to Africa’s poverty.

Either way, over time these naysayers will be weeded out, as Africa begins to rise up on its own feet and find sustainable economic and social models that are independent of aid and charity.

The evidence is readily available:

  • The United Nations in 2012 states that primary school enrolment in sub-Saharan Africa has increased five times as quickly since 1999 as it did in the previous decade.
  • Cities like Nairobi, Kampala, Lagos and Accra are booming with active stock exchanges, new building developments and employers competing to offer new jobs and comfortable salaries.
  • Over 40% of Africans now enjoy a middle class lifestyle and governments and new business opportunities are chipping away at poverty and disease.
  • Ten years ago, where many in the countryside had to collect water from mud puddles, now there are covered wells with clean water.
  • Solar panels are now used increasingly to power homes and businesses, lighting up villages and towns who were in the dark for decades.
  • Roads are improving, and motorcycles and trucks are more common.
  • Mobile phones are now ubiquitous. New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof  was pleasantly surprised during a recent visit to Africa at how mobile technology has penetrated Africa. “More than 100 people here have cellphones,” one woman told him proudly in her village in Burkina Faso. “There are too many to count.” With cellphones, families can find out what market town offers the best price for their goods, or where fertilizer is cheapest. They can save money or transfer it, for cellphones are becoming the banking system for the poor. They can find out where there are jobs, or if contraceptives are finally in stock at the clinic a half-day’s hike away.

It’s not all rosy and wonderful – the African story you normally hear is laced with a dash of guns and chaos and there is some truth present - Africa still has years of poor leadership to shake off; corruption is still rife in many countries, access to health services is still not a given, and political conflict rages in the Horn of Africa and parts of  the North.

So while the onus sits with African leaders and its people to support trade, simplify border crossings, reduce the opportunities for graft, improve healthcare services, encourage home-grown private business and generally keep the peace, Africa is coming into its own and seems likely to become a much more important part of the global economy in the 21st century — not to be milked for funding, nor pity, but a place to admire.


Sources and excerpts:
  • Personal facebook newsfeed – mind those status updates, people are watching!
  • NY Times – An African Adventure, and a Revelation, By Nicholas D. KRISTOF
  • ABC Online – ‘Poverty Pornography’, by Julie Cowdroy, an ambassador for Opportunity International Australia and the Global Poverty Project and Hugh Evans, co-founder and CEO of the Global Poverty Project.
  • Niger statistics: CIA World Factbook -

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