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Disaster-Porn and the White Man's Burden: Rethinking the Image of Aid to Africa?

December 26th, 2012
in: Humans
by: Jack Bicker
located in: Norway
tags: Africa, Africa for Norway, development, foreign aid, Kony2012, media, Norway, racism, radi-aid, social media

Last month's spoof Radi-Aid video mocked western aid campaigns, but in an era of fleeting digital media consumption does the video tell the true story of aid in Africa, or fall victim to the cynicism behind its own success?

Norwegians are suffering in the bleak cold of winter and are in desperate need of your radiators in order to survive... Or at least that's the somewhat tongue-in-cheek suggestion of a recent spoof charity music-video that has garnered over two million youtube views, and aims to readjust the west's view of the African continent.

Mimicking famous giving campaigns like KONY2012 and Band Aid, the Radi-Aid video shows a group of South African students collecting heating equipment from concerned members of the African public who've been spurned into giving by exaggerated pictures of a bitter Norwegian blizzard. "Imagine if every person in Africa saw the 'Africa for Norway' video and this was the only information they ever got about Norway" the Radi-Aid website reads. "What would they think about Norway?"

The same goes for  pictures of Africa presented to the west - so the campaign suggests. Images of starving children, burning villages, civil wars, disease, poverty, HIV orphans, etc., all contribute to a perception of backward, undeveloped societies in need of our charity. As one of the video's actors, Samke Mkhinzi, commented to the BBC,

"They come here and they're pushing the stereotypes as if that is the only thing going on in Africa... That's not me! That's not where I am! THAT'S NOT MY AFRICA!"

This kind of so-called disaster-porn contributes to what Rudyard Kipling termed the White Man's Burden in a poem on the theme of imperialism as long ago as 1899. A caricatured, tunnel-visioned view of far away peoples at their worst, whose lives would be much better if only we could "help" them to be more like us in the west. And how is it that we generally propose to help? Well, we organise black-tie fundraisers and cake sales, we sell 'charity pants', click "buy" in iTunes, or work up the kind of ephemeral digital-outrage elicited by the KONY2012 video for which we were asked to do little more than press share on Facebook to feel as if we'd achieved something.

Looking at disaster-porn and doing something - however small or unsustainable - makes us feel worthy. We feel as if we're contributing to the world, effortlessly climbing the hill to the moral high-ground, and committing ourselves to a paradoxical sort of arm's-length-solidarity. The Radi-Aid campaigners think this is wrong, and while not wishing to deter donors, the more serious point resting behind the video is that of harshly attacking the general process of these donors' giving.

On a similar theme William Easterly, professor of economics at New York University, outlines the damage done by irresponsible giving projects in his 2006 book 'The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good'.

As an example, Easterly describes the failures of a US driven anti-malaria project in which mosquito nets were paid for and sent to Africa by distant donors possessing no real knowledge of the situation in the destination country. When handed out for free, the nets are "often diverted to the black market . . . or wind up being used as fishing nets or wedding veils"; but when insecticide-treated nets were instead sold to new mothers in rural Malawi for 50 cents, the control of supply and economic value led to an increased "nationwide average of children under 5 sleeping under nets from 8 percent in 2000 to 55 percent in 2004". The suggestion here, then, is that by developing local knowledge, and avoiding the urge to categorise Africans as 'victims', life changing positive results can be achieved.

But is the picture offered to us by the Radi-Aid team really a fair representation of the work of all aid agencies? A former British-born nurse who spent a career working across the continent - and who preferred to remain anonymous - commented that, "whether working with desperately poor South Africans in townships during apartheid, or with refugees in camps during civil wars in north east Africa, the whole point of us being there, living and getting to know the local people that we were serving, was to identify their needs, feel how they lived, and how best we could bring our medical knowledge to meet their knowledge. Maybe it's just the way the media works these days but don't attack aid agencies for showing genuine problems, and asking the west to cough up".

In a media reality in which the Kardashians can be famous, and in which we're ever encouraged to reduce our thoughts to nothing more than 140 characters, can aid agencies really be blamed for using images that catch the fleeting attention of viewers increasingly immersed in an overcrowded digital play-pen?

One of the UK's leading photographers working in the sector, Geoff Crawford, doesn't believe it's this simple; "Aid agencies are an easy target and I've worked very closely with such agencies for over twenty years. The vast majority work through local agencies, churches and individuals within the communities. These people are intimately involved in their communities and more often than not are encountering the same problems as the recipients of the aid. The situation is often extremely complex. We must not forget that whilst there are many incorrect perceptions of Africa most of the agencies delivering aid and development have long term, in-country connections and are therefore intimately acquainted with the needs and solutions. Let's not be too quick to judge..."

So maybe the creators of the Radi-Aid video have fallen victim to the very same phenomenon that they originally hoped to criticise: by packaging their message so as to be a humorous youtube hit of some two million views, the subtlety of the situation - and of their message - is lost in their attempt to grab digital attention.

Yes, aid agencies use images that don't tell the entire story of a diverse continent, but neither does a video made by a group of smart, middle-class South African university students. Only a few miles away from the University of Johannesburg where Samke Mkhinzi told the BBC "That's not me! That's not where I am!" lie the capital city's 182 squatter camps which house up to 200,000 homeless South Africans each. Here, the elderly and young children alike live in makeshift shacks without proper sanitation, and without schooling, often sharing one water tap between 700 in a cycle of poverty perpetuated by systemic corruption. Samke might look on and think THAT'S NOT MY AFRICA, but plenty of aid workers, both from within Africa and abroad, would respectfully beg to differ.

Read more about the Radi-Aid campaign here...

And click here to read about AFRICANS IN THE DIASPORA, a charity championing the inclusion of local African voices in development decisions and aid projects. 

Images: (1) Youtube still from Radi-Aid © SAIH. (2) Youtube still from Radi-Aid © SAIH.

Article written by:
Jack Bicker
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