By Tom Murphy, Humanosphere correspondent east
Good stories especially need to be told about Africa, says Oxfam Great Britain, to document the progress being made amid all the problems
“In order for people to understand what’s happening in Africa, we’ve also got to tell the good stories, and there has been good news in Africa,” said Oxfam GB head Dame Barbara Stocking in an interview about the campaign for SkyNews.
Stocking contends the media and many charities tend to mostly focus on negative stories of conflict and suffering, neglecting the good news stories and creating a distorted view. Oxfam GB is the latest to change its marketing angle towards telling good stories based on the belief that people need to see evidence of progress.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation operates along similar lines, funding media to do success stories and recently launching a grant program specifically supporting communications projects aimed at showing that humanitarian aid is working.
But is a focus on good news any less likely to distort the picture than a focus on bad news?
The Oxfam campaign seeks to change what makes a specific country famous by displaying beautiful images of landscapes, markets and shadows of people. The captions tell people, “Let’s make Africa famous for its stunning countryside/ epic landscapes / food markets. Not hunger/food shortage.”
Though people do make cameos in the photographs, the text and focal points are on the landscapes. One image is of a market in Kenya’s Turkana region. Brilliant red tomatoes spill over from wooden crates while people make their way through market. The people are inactive and are more background than main characters in the story that is being told.
In one photo from Laos, a fisherman featured prominently in the middle, the caption simply talks about the teeming rivers. Mother Nature is the focus, which perhaps inadvertently ends up shifting our attention away from his poverty to a different subject.
The campaign strategy is backed by a survey () that found 60% of respondents were desensitized to images that depict suffering like hunger and disease. Changing what is shown to people will take advantage of the general belief (74% of respondents agree,) that it is possible to end hunger.
A new report that was released alongside the campaign highlights the strong economic growth sub-Saharan Africa has experienced in the past decade. Even countries without oil saw strong growth and the overall pace of economic development throughout Africa appears to be continuing. This is good news.
Yet bad news persists. One out of every three countries in sub-Saharan Africa cannot provide food for all of its citizens. Overall, food security is improving in the region, but still 10 countries saw declines in food availability. The authors pin the blame not on food supply itself; rather it is challenges to distribution and a lack of investment in the agriculture sector.
“A lack of investment and political support for small scale agriculture means that productivity remains relatively weak, with cereal yields in African lower than anywhere else in the world over the last five decades. What food there is available is also unfairly distributed, with poorer households typically having to spend up to two-thirds of their income on food,” explains the press release.
The problem here is that the good news of the overall statistics of economic growth in Africa also can distort the picture, and mask underlying chronic problems that, in some cases, are getting worse even as the overall numbers may be improving. The authors of the report on food security try to strike a balance between the positive overall gains in the face of some significant obstacles.
Yet their narrative is a great example of how trying to tell only good stories can be as misinforming as the narratives that focus on suffering, inequity and the bad news.
The challenge for those who want to tell the good news is twofold. First, people respond to stories of people suffering. The reason NGOs and news agencies tend to focus on stories of suffering is not because these communities enjoy bad news. It’s because these are the stories that, for the media, capture our attention and, for NGOs, seem to best drive donors and sales. Images of drought are captivating because they strike a nerve on a visceral human level. They get people to care and act. Making a change away from campaigns based on suffering will be hard.
Secondly, telling good news is just as potentially misleading as focusing on the bad. The criticism against only telling stories of suffering, or negative stories, is that they only tell one part of life for a person or community that this incomplete depiction can create the belief in people that life in a part of the world is largely related to suffering.
What happens if all of those organizations clamoring not to cut foreign aid start pushing a simplistic success story? Will members of Congress and the already apathetic American public use this as an excuse to further whittle down our already miniscule foreign aid budget?
Telling good stories seeks to change the narrow view, but this looks likely to can pose a similar – if on the flip-side – distortion of reality that some now contend arise out of suffering-dominated reporting and NGO communications. Seeking out good stories for the sake of balance makes sense only if our only option is to view life as a scale that adds up negative and positive on either side.
The truth is, life is fuzzy and a complex mix of the good and bad. Simple numbers or narratives are almost certain to be misleading. For example, when talking about poverty, the number of people who live on $2 a day is often mentioned. It is a useful way to help people understand how dire poverty is, but it makes it seem like that is a consistent wage. The fact is that many are subsistence farmers who have an abundance of money shortly after the harvest season and are with little or no income prior to the harvest.
Good news is a part of life for every person, as is bad. For people living in poverty there can be greater extremes with area that fills in-between. Telling only one side or the other neglects what fills the middle space of life and, in the end, is misleading no matter whether it is a story of triumph or one of suffering.
Note: The Guardian also took Oxfam GB to task for this campaign today, for slightly different reasons.
Tom Murphy is Humanosphere’s east coast correspondent, until we can think of a better title. Tom is a prolific writer-blogger and editor of the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. Tom is based in Boston and tweets at @viewfromthecave.