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  • Writer's pictureVic Hancock Fell

We need to stop talking about ‘Africa’

Updated: Apr 4

What do you think of when you think of Africa? If you thought of Acacia trees at sunset, war, safaris, disease or The Lion King, you’re not alone according to a recent v-blog on African stereotypes. African people don’t want your stinky T-shirts just became one of my favourite commentaries on the issue of the (sometimes) damaging narrative of the development sector.

Other favourites include Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s thought-provoking TED talk on the danger of telling a single story and the very relatable article by Virginia Fresne, Director of Programs at Flying Kites, If your kid doesn’t want that ripped pair of pyjama bottoms, why would mine? Virginia writes, ‘Yesterday morning, our office received a box of letters, sent by a bright and earnest group of fourth graders from a Boston school. The parents had asked if the class could be Pen Pals with our students in Kenya.

“Dear Flying Kites orphan, I’m sorry you are poor,” the opening line read’. Oh dear…

It’s not enough to have good intentions

We know the intention of that letter was good, but that’s just the problem. It is not enough to have good intentions. In the African people don’t want your stinky T-shirts v-blog, the presenter makes a statement that stopped me in my tracks, “I guess if your heart is in the right place, you don’t have to care about development with dignity”.

‘Yes!’ I thought, this rings so true. During my career in the small NGO sector, working mainly with organisations working in Sub-Saharan Africa, I have come across this so many times. At one organisation I was asked by a local football team whether I would like some of the ‘old and tired’ football kit that their team didn’t want anymore. I politely declined as I knew the intention was good, but felt like saying, ‘thank you, but if your team don’t want it anymore why do you think my team in Kenya would want it?’ Worryingly, I’ve also come across this kind of attitude from people working or volunteering within organisations.

What do development organisations tell us about Africa?

Perhaps we’ve become too used to seeing adverts of starving African children in raggy old clothes kicking balls of carrier bags around, and so assume that we must FedEx them our unwanted hand-me-downs. But, I think it’s time to change the narrative. We need to change the way we talk about Africa and a good place to start is for development organisations to change the way they talk about their beneficiaries.

A part of this problem is that many of the larger aid and development organisations, the ones who can afford TV adverts and printed ads in national newspapers, are the worst culprits when it comes to stereotyping the African continent and their beneficiaries.

Each year The Rusty Radiator award goes to the charity fundraising video with the worst use of stereotypes. The organisers say “this kind of portrayal is not only unfair to the persons portrayed in the campaign, but also hinders long-term development and the fight against poverty.” In 2015, the winner was the Band Aid 30 – Do they know its Christmas video? (by the way, the answer is ‘yes’ they do know it’s Christmas time.) Up for nomination this year, World Vision Australia and Save the Children Netherlands.

But, there’s hope…

The Narrative Project is a research effort and group of organisations passionate about global equity issues and changing the public conversation on global development to foster a more positive outlook. Some larger organisations have also started to shift in the approach of their online advertising with videos like The End of Extreme Poverty from Oxfam.

Some smaller NGOs are leading the way in positive representation of their beneficiaries. Team Kenya are a small NGO working with girls and women in Kenya, you’ll notice something about all the imagery they use on their website and social media – happy, smiling faces, stories of success and empowered beneficiaries telling their own stories. I was a part of the team who worked on Team Kenya’s re-brand, one of the questions we asked was ‘would I want to be portrayed like that?’ or ‘would I want my own child to be portrayed like that?’, if the answer is no, why should we be OK with portraying our beneficiaries like that?

Hub Cymru Africa, The Estelle Trust, MOYODEI and The Congo Tree are just a few other small NGOs making a concerted effort to positively portray beneficiaries.

So, next time you think of Africa, think of what Eliza Anyangwe says in her v-blog, “Africa doesn’t need saving, all she needs is for people to hear ‘Africa’ and simply be open to whatever comes next”.

If your small NGO is leading the way as a positive voice for development, we would love to hear from you! Please get in touch.


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