Almost without exception, the images that frame the Western portrayal of Africa are horrifying. Africa, Americans are told, is a barren place of unimaginable poverty, starvation, disease, and violence. Rather than the second-largest continent in the world with a dynamic collection of fifty-six different countries and over a billion people, it is a savage, impenetrable jungle, bristling with “tribal warfare,” “AIDS,” “machetes,” and “bloodlust,” dominated by shattered hopes and impossible dreams. The talking points of popular nonfiction and public dialogue are of tribal conflict in Congo, pirates in Somalia, and genocide in Darfur – not the remarkable development successes in Ghana, Botswana, or Mozambique, nor the trend towards democratization across the continent. Depictions of catastrophe in media and politics color the pages of this magazine and the imagination of its readers.
Of course, Africa has suffered a great deal. Since decolonization, sub-Saharan Africa has declined in almost every indicator of relative development. But imagery of very real anarchy in certain places in Africa should not subsume the entire continent. 19th-century European cartographers, who had not yet ventured into the interior of Africa, dubbed it the “Dark Continent” because they blackened out the unknown on their maps. In many ways, the popular understanding of Africa has advanced little since then. Despite the immeasurable advances in the gathering and dissemination of information, Africa often seems just as foreign, dangerous, and unintelligible.
These one-dimensional images are more than simply unfortunate misinterpretations: they frame political intervention, economic calculus, and even academic research. Any substantive attempt at reversing Africa’s plight must therefore include an ideological reversal, one that involves restructuring the field of our imagination as well as the landscape of politics.
Obscuring the Dark Continent
The problem of Africa’s distorted image has plagued the continent since the colonial era. And “if anything,” Professor Beverley Hawk of the University of Alabama-Birmingham told the HPR, “it is only getting worse.” Studies of media coverage show that the positive trends in Africa – higher levels of education, regional economic growth, and stability – are chronically underreported, even relative to their Western counterparts, while disasters in places like Somalia and Sudan dominate the limited reporting on Africa. The closing of international bureaus and declining news budgets for those remaining mean that the “news window has narrowed,” making coverage of Africa even more unrepresentative of the continent as a whole. Stories of disaster are often the only sources of information about the African experience. Because we cannot put these stories into context with our personal experience, Hawk said, we “develop an image of that place based only on those negative news stories,” a distorted caricature of reality.
Stereotypes of Africa held by the public are exacerbated by selective media coverage of events in Africa. Hawk, editor of the groundbreaking book Africa’s Media Image, argued that news organizations have to “pander to stereotypes held by the audience.” This creates a devastating cycle in which news watchers expect stories about Africa to conform to their preconceived image of Africa, and news agencies continue to frame the continent as chaotic and unstable, thereby justifying the biases of their viewers. The result is degrading and dehumanizing. Charlotte Walker, lecturer on African history at Harvard University, argued that much of this image is rooted in racial prejudice. “There’s a lot of racism the media’s not willing to acknowledge,” Walker said. The media implicitly divides the world into a “total North and South” that relegates the global South to the periphery of the civilized, Western core.
The Sound of Silence
Racist or not, these media stereotypes frame political reality in concrete, dangerous ways; sensationalist reporting leads to inaccurate and crisis-induced policy. Politicians respond to constituents, who mobilize around the particular disasters the media sensationalizes. The “media’s vocabulary becomes [America’s] vocabulary,” Hawk explained.
The media is also complicit in inaction: it “gives us our silence on events,” as Hawk put it. The exclusive focus on provocative headlines is profoundly reactive, and discourages sustained narratives of farsighted, structural development. As Achille Mbembé notes in his book On the Postcolony, Africa is portrayed as a “bottomless abyss where everything is noise, yawning gap, and primordial chaos.” The media barely notices forty years of civil war in Southern Sudan, but genocide in Darfur makes the front page. Resolvable conditions are ignored by the media, and the resultant violence is dismissed as the norm, swallowed up by the degradation narrative.
The typical defense of media imagery holds that these omissions matter little. The media’s emotionally charged appeals, so the argument goes, are a victimless crime. At the very least, they catalyze public support for action. But the effectiveness of public action intended to help Africa is questionable at best. The “classic controversial case,” according to Michael Walton, lecturer in international development at the Harvard Kennedy School, is the media blitz generated around the 1984-85 Ethiopian famines. Worldwide press led to a huge influx of donations and the first Live Aid concert. As Walton, who was working for the World Bank at the time, explained, it was “not at all clear that they improved the situation,” as the aid went into a “very distorted environment.” Famine scholar Dr. Alexander de Waal famously went so far as to argue that this “humanitarian effort prolonged the war, and with it, human suffering.”
The negative representations created by the media have other unanticipated consequences. Not only do these depictions create the conditions for compassion fatigue – a backlash against an overload of disaster images – and entrench racial stereotypes, but they also engender devastating economic repercussions. The absence of foreign investment remains one of the largest obstacles to Africa’s development, due in part to media-driven misperceptions that scare off Western corporations. According to the U.S. government’s Overseas Private Investment Corporation, Africa has the highest return in the world on direct foreign investment, but attracts the least capital. The perpetual bombardment of images of instability, violence, and corruption, Hawk argued, directly influences whether industry “feels Africa is safe enough to invest.”
On the other hand, one could argue that those who actually formulate policy do much of their own research, so they are not subject to the whims of mass media. To a certain degree, this is true. As Walton told the HPR, most development programs with a field presence “develop their knowledge based on frequent visits to Africa,” and often send multiple sources. Decisions hinge on “things that do and do not work on the ground – at least on the conscious level, that should be pretty immune to the representation of Africa.”
However, as Walton acknowledged, even in the development community there may be a “bias” induced by the media. This bias can account for a particularly disturbing trend in the development community over the past decade: the movement away from the African state. Development programs have shifted away from direct dealings with African governments and into the private realm. Initiatives like microfinance give loans outside of state banks, and public health NGOs collect their own demographic information rather than financing a Ministry of Health. What little aid is still given directly to governments generally comes affixed with a host of complicated conditions that make aid flows unpredictable and unreliable.
For Walker, who studies African legal and political history, this new move is about “circumventing corrupt Africa.” As she puts it, the “hot new political topic” across all levels of aid – the World Bank, the IMF, the United Nations, the State Department, even NGOs – is corruption. Instability, they would have you believe, is so deeply rooted in the African continent that it slips through the fissures in their legal systems. How often does one hear the lament that well-intentioned aid goes “straight into the pockets of African dictators”?
While some non-state programs have been successful on a small scale, they are ultimately dangerous if they risk distracting attention from state-building. As Walton explained, they can “lead to a focus… on tackling the symptoms” of underdevelopment rather than the causes. At least some degree of corruption is inevitable, and attempting to extirpate it completely before giving aid for state-building is unrealistic. Cutting out the state, Walker argued, “can only lead to further underdevelopment.” The nation-state is the currency of the international order: it is necessary to enforce the rule of law, sign treaties, and protect its citizens. In the developed world, amidst omnipresent talk of globalization, it’s easy to forget that, in Walker’s words, “you need a state to survive.” It may still be difficult to work with African states, but, as Walton concluded, “that it’s genuinely hard doesn’t mean we can’t give it a try.”
The West’s Heart of Darkness
Western mischaracterizations reveal more about the West itself than the true state of affairs in Africa. As Achille Mbembe writes, “narrative about Africa is always a pretext for a comment about something else, some other place, some other people… [it] is the mediation that enables the West to accede to its own subconscious and give a public account of its subjectivity.” The perpetual imagery of an Africa-in-crisis – always juxtaposed with the superiority of Western modernity – is a different form of the same colonial logic which Edward Said once identified as defining “us” in opposition to “them.”
Talk of corruption, the latest mode of contrasting the West with Africa, operates in much the same way. “The whole corruption narrative is very much self-congratulatory; we have transparent institutions, you have nepotism,” Walker argued. This frames the inability of Africa to accede to particular Western standards of transparency and legality as an ethical failing. As Hawk explained, “It is really just this century’s version of the 150-year-old missionary’s ‘godless savage’ – you have the sinner, but now in democracy you have a different sinner you are saving. It is that paradigm that shapes and directs policy.”
Perhaps this explains why, even during coverage of the most publicized African disasters, Americans rarely ever hear Africans themselves talking about Africa. Articles on Zimbabwe in the 1980s, for instance, cited white authorities to black authorities at a ratio of twenty-two to one, despite the proportion of white to black in the general population being close to the reverse. “Helping” Africa in the 21st century requires breaking our narrow-minded view of the continent and expanding our horizon of knowledge. It does not mean inaction, but it does mean a different sort of action, premised not simply on what the West thinks but on an understanding of how the West thinks.
Will Rafey ‘13 is a Staff Writer.
Photo Credit: United Nations Photo (Flickr)