Less easy to tune out of is the barrage of fundraising appeals for Africa and this year they seem to be more shocking, emotive and forceful than ever before.
There’s no doubt that life for millions of Africans is very hard or very short. Around 300 million Africans live in poverty and the 28 bottom nations in the United Nations’ Human Development Report 2011 are all African. One in eight children in Sub-Saharan Africa die before their fifth birthday.
There’s also no doubt that the work of organisations like Save the Children in Africa is intelligent and often extraordinary, mixing short-term relief of disasters like the current East African famine, with longer term solutions, lead by local people.
But are their TV appeals intelligent?
They are certainly a desperate response to desperate levels of suffering and is motivated by a passionate belief that we have to do everything we can to relieve this suffering.
But they aren’t intelligent, they’re simplistic. This bombardment of Christmas appeals from organisations like Save the Children, WaterAid and ActionAid – the vast majority of which is not connected to specific disaster relief – presents Africa as a permanently starving, disease ridden continent that needs our help to survive.
During some recent work we did in schools in East London, we talked to 100s of children about how they saw charity and particular causes. When asked about what they saw when they looked at Africa, every response, exclusively, reported visions of poverty, suffering, disease and famine. The odd reference to members of Girls Aloud or Chris Moyles cradling dying African babies was in there too.
Do we get to move on from this destructive, misleading vision of Africa soon?
The real African story has evolved and continues to. The Guardian’s recent report on Africa’s growing middle-class helped tell this story as did The Economists’ “The Hopeful Continent” feature.
The collateral effect of the endless wall of images of helpless Africans, from charity brands that has our trust and respect, is the popular perception that Africa is a place that we give to and feel sorry for, not buy from and invest in. Every economist (and probably most people at organisations like Save the Children) will tell you that it is balanced, well distributed economic growth, not charity, that will lift hundreds of millions more African’s out of poverty and into the middle-classes.
There is always vital work to do to relieve the suffering that disasters bring, all around the world, but this work doesn’t need to come with one sided social marketing that has such damaging, long-term side effects.