The March/April 2011 issue of Columbia Journalism Review has a long-overdue article by former Peace Corps volunteer Karen Rothmyer under the provocative headline, Hiding the Real Africa: Why NGOs prefer bad news. Here’s how it begins.
And now for some good news out of Africa. Poverty rates throughout the continent have been falling steadily and much faster than previously thought, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research. The death rate of children under five years of age is dropping, with “clear evidence of accelerating rates of decline,” according to The Lancet. Perhaps most encouragingly, Africa is “among the world’s most rapidly growing economic regions,” according to the McKinsey Quarterly.
Yet US journalism continues to portray a continent of unending horrors. Last June, for example, Time magazine published graphic pictures of a naked woman from Sierra Leone dying in childbirth. Not long after, CNN did a story about two young Kenyan boys whose family is so poor they are forced to work delivering goats to a slaughterhouse for less than a penny per goat. Reinforcing the sense of economic misery, between May and September 2010 the ten most-read US newspapers and magazines carried 245 articles mentioning poverty in Africa, but only five mentioning gross domestic product growth.
Reporters’ attraction to certain kinds of Africa stories has a lot to do with the frames of reference they arrive with. Nineteenth century New York Herald correspondent Henry M. Stanley wrote that he was prepared to find Zanzibar “populated by ignorant blacks, with great thick lips, whose general appearance might be compared to Du Chaillu’s gorillas.” Since the Biafran War, a cause célèbre in the West, helped give rise in the late 1960s to the new field of human rights, Western reporters have closely tracked issues like traditional female circumcision. In the 1980s, a famine in Ethiopia that, in fact, had as much to do with politics as with drought, set a pattern of stories about “starving Africans” that not only hasn’t been abandoned, but continues to grow: according to a 2004 study done by Steven S. Ross, then a Columbia journalism professor, between 1998 and 2002 the number of stories about famine in Africa tripled. In Kenya, where I was a Peace Corps volunteer in the late 1960s and where I returned to live four years ago, The New York Times description of post-election violence in 2007 as a manifestation of “atavistic” tribalism carried echoes of Stanley and other early Western visitors.
But the main reason for the continued dominance of such negative stereotypes, I have come to believe, may well be the influence of Western-based non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and international aid groups like United Nations agencies. These organizations understandably tend to focus not on what has been accomplished but on convincing people how much remains to be done. As a practical matter, they also need to attract funding. Together, these pressures create incentives to present as gloomy a picture of Africa as possible in order to keep attention and money flowing, and to enlist journalists in disseminating that picture.
Africans themselves readily concede that there continues to be terrible conflict and human suffering on the continent. But what’s lacking, say media observers like Sunny Bindra, a Kenyan management consultant, is context and breadth of coverage so that outsiders can see the continent whole—its potential and successes along with its very real challenges. “There are famines; they’re not made up,” Bindra says. “There are arrogant leaders. But most of the journalism that’s done doesn’t challenge anyone’s thinking.”
Over the past thirty years, NGOs have come to play an increasingly important role in aid to Africa. A major reason is that Western donors, worried about government corruption, have channelled more funds through them. In the mid-1970s, less than half a dozen NGOs (like the Red Cross or CARE) might operate in a typical African country, according to Nicolas van de Walle, a professor of government at Cornell, but now the same country will likely have 250.
This explosive NGO growth means increasing competition for funds. And according to the head of a large US-based NGO in Nairobi, “When you’re fundraising you have to prove there is a need. Children starving, mothers dying. If you’re not negative enough, you won’t get funding.” So fierce is the competition that many NGOs don’t want to hear good news. An official of an organization that provides data on Somalia’s food situation says that after reporting a bumper harvest last year, “I was told by several NGOs and UN agencies that the report was too positive.”
Fundraising organizations, whether NGOs or GOs, prefer narratives of impending doom or ongoing catastrophe.