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Is it time for a new image of Africa?

Is it time for a new image of Africa?
“Is it time for a new image of Africa?”

Hannah Edwards, Press Officer, SOS Children UK


A new advertising campaign from Oxfam is stirring up debate. Oxfam’s adverts, which have appeared in newspapers, on billboards and in the digital media, show stunning landscapes of Africa, such as the snow-capped Mount Kilimanjaro and a beautiful cascading waterfall. The strap-line across the images is “Let’s make Africa famous for its stunning countryside, not hunger.”

Explaining the rationale behind the new campaign, Oxfam’s acting communications director told The Guardian that the adverts are designed to counter the negative view of Africa among the British public. Having conducted a survey among 2,000 people in the UK, the charity found that over half associated Africa with ‘poverty’, ‘famine’ or ‘hunger’ when asked to think about the continent. More worryingly for an organisation which relies on donations, more than two-fifths said they felt the usual portrayals of the continent were “depressing, manipulative and hopeless” and made them feel conditions in Africa would never improve. Further, three out of five said they had become ‘desensitised’ to images of hungry people or drought.

Reaction to the Oxfam campaign has been swift. Some critics have accused Oxfam of being one of the leading culprits when it comes to promoting negative images of Africa based on starving people. Others have commented that Africa is already well-known for its amazing landscapes and nature, as well as other positive things such as the warmth of its people. And one detractor accuses the adverts of creating a message which is simply “African-Hunger-Backdropped-by-Stunning-African-Landscapes”.

But it is undeniable that many potential donors in the West are turned off by relentless images of poverty and desolation. Such pictures often serve to make people feel helpless in the face of seemingly unending problems. In addition, many Africans feel angry and humiliated that their continent is always portrayed in a negative light. High-profile figures like Mo Ibrahim have challenged charitable organisations and the media to better reflect the changing face of Africa and acknowledge the positives, such as the continent’s rising prosperity. Over a dozen African economies have grown more than 6% annually over the last five years, creating many wealthy and middle-class consumers. These Africans are as likely to be using the latest technology or buying goods in glitzy shopping precincts as consumers in the West.

The purpose of Oxfam’s 2013 campaign is certainly to “make sure people have a ...better balanced picture of what’s happening in Africa”, according to the charity’s chief executive. Other charities, too, have recognised the importance of this goal. So, the award-winning ‘Our Africa’ website (www.our-africa.org) launched by SOS Children, aims to show all sides of the continent through the eyes of its young people and includes many videos of ‘modern-day’ Africa, such as a shopping mall in South Africa, a solar plate used for cooking in Burkina Faso and a trip to the local swimming pool in Namibia.

This doesn’t mean to say the problems of war or famine have gone away in certain parts of Africa, or that serious issues such as poverty and serious health threats like malaria, don’t remain. But hopefully by presenting images of Africa which aren’t ‘depressing’, charitable organisations can show that change is possible and the continent has a bright future ahead. Whether such images encourage donors to give more generously, however, is another question.

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