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Africa: Media and charities blamed for image of a continent in permanent crisis

In many African countries, there have been dramatic and accelerating falls in child mortality in the last 10 years, yet many believe Africa is stagnating or regressing. Graph: PMI.gov.Changes in Africa and the impact of overseas aid are not being effectively communicated to the public, a recent conference on development messages in Dublin has heard.

Organised by Dóchas, the umbrella group for Irish aid agencies and IDEA (the Irish Development Education Association), speakers addressed the findings of a survey into Ireland’s attitude to overseas aid.

The IPSOS/MRBI poll found while 88 per cent of those surveyed are proud of the general aid programme, awareness of aid and its effect was low.

Many of those questioned (44%) thought Africa had not changed in 20 years (31%) or was worse off (14%). But this stands in sharp contrast to reports from the World Bank, McKinsey and The Economist showing dramatic improvements during this time in some parts of the region.

UN data on child mortality show that under-5 mortality dropped rapidly in sub-Saharan Africa over the last 20 years, and at an increasing rate: the rate of decline doubled from 1.2 per cent a year during 1990-2000 to 2.4 per cent a year during 2000-2010. The fall in child mortality in Africa was described recently by The Economist as "the best story in development".

“This research suggests that, despite clear progress in many developing countries, the good news stories from Africa are not reaching the general public. We now need a broader approach to informing the Irish people about the contribution that we in Ireland are making around the world,” the head of Dochas, Hans Zomer said.

The conference addressed a number of possible reasons for this disconnect according to Zomer.

The first is the survey showed most people learn about developing countries in the news, and news by its nature tends to focus on crisis events such as war or famine. Zomer said this can lead to countries like Somalia dominating headlines while prospering Ghana rarely features.

The conference - C-Cubed: Creatively Communicating Complex Ideas about Development – also looked inwards at the development community itself.

“Much of what the public sees from our members is the fundraising message. And a lot of that can be disproportionally flavoured with a sense of crisis,” Zomer said. “The net result is that we unwittingly contribute to the impression of near-constant crisis in Africa.”

Worldandmedia.com, editor, Frank Humphreys agreed, remarking that some African countries are among the fastest growing in the world. He added that in his dealings with journalists and editors, he had found significant goodwill regarding development issues and an openness to new ways of covering them. Despite their own interest, however, some felt that global development was worthy rather than something the public are interested in. Changing that perception is a challenge both for NGOs and for journalists.

Speaking by phone after the conference, Zomer said one of the problems is that stark images remain in the mind. So even though NGOs typically use a range of positive and negative imagery, the public remembers the traumatic images and associates them with Africa as a whole he said.

Also at the conference, Irish Minister for Development Joe Costello suggested over-simplification of the message as one cause of the problem.

“Too often the messages and images portrayed in fundraising and communications focus on the negative and the simple. We must communicate the more complex picture of international development and portray people in developing countries as active citizens rather than just victims; as agents in their own political and economic change.”

Confusion about funding for aid is not limited to the general public. A report published recently by British MPs on the International Development Committee said European Commission funds directed to countries such as Serbia and Turkey would be better spent on developing countries in Africa or Asia.

However this is a fundamental misunderstanding of the EuropeAid programmes according to the Commissioner for Development. Responding to the report, Andris Piebalgs said:

“An important part of our work is also to provide financial assistance to countries which are classified as developing countries and wishing to join the EU, both to support their reforms and to prepare them for implementing European standards and policies. This is delivered through separate instruments than the ones clearly aimed at fighting poverty.”

If a report commissioned by one of Europe’s largest economies cannot unravel where its funds are going and why, then it would seem the aid community is facing a serious challenge.

Link: C-Cubed Conference Report

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