More on Oxfam’s controversial effort to change misconceptions of Africa, and poverty


The well-intended but perhaps off-target campaign by Oxfam to spread good news about Africa now has drawn a critical look from  the LA Times.

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.

WaPo Comments 1

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.

WaPo Comments 2

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.


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a Maine-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited 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. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]

  • aidnography

    I think your approach is too ‘intellectual’ in this post, Tom. First and foremost, all major news sites attract trolls. The really bad ones. And lots of them, too. I’m following debates both in English and German and the amount of potentially frustrated people who have the time and energy to ‘comment’ on everything and anything is quite surprising/disturbing. This is neither a reflection on the actual content (Oxfam campaign) nor the broader topic of international development. That said, it is true that given development’s relative (mainstream, political) unimportance, a surprising range of stereotypes from ca. 1974 persists. News reporting from the wars in Africa or the Sahel drought must have shaped a whole generation of ‘normal’ people who know very little about contemporary development. It will be difficult to reach out to this mainstream other than through ad-hoc donation campaigns which do little to educate most donors. Our generation may have to live with the fact that we should focus on our positive work and impact, simply ignoring some of the conservative, traditional ‘critics’ rather than trying to ‘educate’ them-if you think taxes are a big government scam, how can you have a reasonable discussion about aid and Africa?!

  • the great savage from Rousseau

    guys have you ever been in africa, I mean really living with them ? What do you know about poverty? Did you study it, in your library, or in those african expat village people ? Do you really believe poverty is a lack of ressources? D What a waste of money, but even worst : what a waste of human life…

    you won’t help them until you ll be able to forget about yourselves, especially about your materialistic point of view of poverty.