Africa Matters is a blog that follows the news and offers analysis of African affairs. Our aim is to delve deeper into the issues of African politics and development. We don’t presume to be experts, and we don’t presume to have all the answers—we are just trying to ask the right questions.

Tuesday, October 21

No good news from Africa?

Lisa Shlein of VOA reports that the ICRC is trying to highlight the one-sided nature of reporting from Africa, particularly the media's singular focus on "war, famine, and poverty." Paul Conneally, a spokesman for the organization, says that a survey of 30 representatives of donor governments affirmed the view that Africa tends to be shortchanged in the news—indeed, 75% of stories about Africa are negative.

Conneally notes that there are many more hopeful and equally newsworthy stories that nonetheless go unreported. Part of the problem, though, is that humanitarian organizations are loath to be too optimistic, lest it hamper their appeal to donors; they are thus reluctant to point to successes. But this doesn't mean they don't exist. By way of example, of course, Conneally describes some of the achievements of the ICRC in battling measles and polio. There are, for sure, other, non-ICRC-related success stories, too.

Interestingly, the article notes that among the concerns about Africa's development that the surveyed policymakers did still express, many of which were perfectly legitimate (e.g., governance, food security, HIV/AIDS), one is "slow progress toward the U.N. Millennium Development Goals." This, at least, may not be an entirely fair criticism—in fact, this sentiment itself contributes to the larger, sometimes skewed perception that Africa lags behind the rest of the world when it comes to development. William Easterly has argued that the MDGs are biased against African countries and details how the 32 indicators measuring the seven targets each seem arbitrary or inconsistent. For example, using the most frequently cited benchmark—to halve poverty from 1990 levels by 2015—Easterly points out that this handicaps Africa in more than one way (e.g., by ignoring all progress made between 1990 and when the MDGs were instituted, in 2000) and also discounts any headway made against poverty that doesn't move people above an essentially arbitrary income line. Most notably, though, asking a country with a 10% poverty rate to cut that in half is very different from asking a country with a 50% poverty rate to do the same. It's worth reading Easterly's more thorough argument, but the point is that, with the MDGs, we're holding Africa as a continent to a higher standard than we are the rest of the world, so how can it then be fair to criticize them for failing to reach it? It seems it's not only the media who are writing the narrative that Africa is hopeless, but the development establishment itself.

When we started this blog, part of the justification was to, in our own way, try to counter the lack of attention to African successes. We've made efforts to relay more positive stories from time to time, but, if you look back at our posts over this past year and a half, I think by and large the slant has been pessimistic. This is of course largely a reflection of what's in the news, but I do think we can make a better effort to bring to light the more promising stuff. That's something we'll have to work on.


RosemaryC said...

Aaron: I think this negative slant is not just about Africa, but about much of the developing world. One of the effects of such a negative perspective is that achievements are not replicated, because people don't know about them. Two years ago, I created Hopebuilding Wiki to share stories of locally-driven achievement - and there are lots. See

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