But the real action is in the comments section. The early responses repeat the somewhat tired – and offensive – old refrain that aid is wasted money because Africans are incapable and bound to mess things up. These comments show we still need a lot more discussion about how people view the African continent and its residents.
Yes, that’s offensive.
But why does such ignorance and apathy persist?
Maybe it’s because conversations about poverty alleviation campaigns have been framed in a way that creates misunderstanding, stereotypes and hopelessness. Critics of these depictions are concerned that they perpetuate the idea that Africa is in deep trouble and needs the help of the West if it is to just barely survive. The people commenting appear to believe the continent is in bad shape because of its own doing and that it Africans are inherently incapable of making it better.
It is ironic that an article about a new campaign that seeks to alter the narrative of Africa elicits the very kind of perspective it is trying to change.
Maybe part of the problem is that they are simply trying to replace one kind of narrative — that of tragedy, suffering — with another equally as simplistic — Africa rising. Maybe the goal here should be a more comprehensive and nuance description that includes the politics and economics of Africa, including those shining examples of progress as well as those terrible examples of privation, oppression and inequity.
Maybe we should even try that at home re the poverty narrative. Remember when that fellow running for president … what was his name? Oh, yeah, Mitt Romney … dismissed 47% of the American electorate because they did not pay federal income taxes? His comments cast the group as takers who are incapable of caring for himself.
[S]o my job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”— Mitt Romney, remarks at private fundraiser, Boca Raton, Florida, May 17
A backlash against Romney’s candidates revealed that many of the people who did not pay federal income taxes were taxed in many other ways (and many were Romney supporters, the elderly retired). The pitch was based on the assumption remains that success directly correlated to hard work and know-how. To some Americans, poverty is the outcome of laziness. People living in poverty do not work hard enough or are too willing to take government benefits, goes the viewpoint.
Because of that, the discussion about taxation and welfare has been shaped by the idea of taking. Money is taken from hard working Americans. The poor then take the money from the government. This language is meant to create a feeling of theft among Americans. It is punctuated by arguing that the takers are incapable. The government is bloated and inefficient. It wastes your money. The people who take the money do not deserve it and they will use it to buy cigarettes.
The line of thinking is seen in some aid opponents. They will say that America has its own problems and that it should not take care of the rest of the world. That opens the door for many of the same arguments that are made domestically. At the core, the belief remains that people living in poverty are there as the result of their own behaviors.
Pressure has grown in regards to the role that NGOs and media have played in telling the story of poverty. Oxfam GB’s campaign is evidence that the issue is being taken seriously. The task now is to discredit growing idea about poverty that is founded on a belief that the poor are incapable of improving their own lives.