Injurious Aid

by Femi Akomolafe

The damaging impacts of the negative portrayal of Africa for humanitarian fundraising

By: Femi Akomolafe

Advertising misery is central to aid agencies’ fundraising operations. Human misery is their principal fund earner. For years, humanitarian organisations have raised funds for their missions in Africa by broadcasting images of African children and women in state of utter destitution to donors. These images are used to evoke a sense of pity and culpability in potential donors. Jennie York, team leader for individual giving and engagement at WaterAid, a London-based NGO that focuses on sanitation issues, stated that although some might find these ‘negative images’ offensive, people don’t respond when other fund raising strategies were used.

However, the commodification of suffering and manipulative tactics that NGOs use to raise funds is perilous to their benefactors, and the NGOs. I will analyse the damaging impacts of the negative images that aid agencies use for fundraising on both the recipient of aid (Africans in this case) and the aid givers (international aid agencies). This article intends to add to the growing literature on this topic.

The insistent use of images of beggary for fundraising in Africa dehumanises Africans. The images portray Africans as people without agency. Many non-Africans view the pictures of the hopeless and naked black women or children regularly displayed by aid agencies to be the ‘prototypes’ of ‘their kind.’ This view helps perpetuate the historical propaganda that Africans are like children who need the constant care of the West. Humanitarian agencies tend to give the western public the impression that their £3 per month is all that Africa needs to develop. This reinforces the status quo of western superiority, which in turn can perpetuate racism. Dolinar and Sitar (2013) noted, ‘a continuous representation of only one image can lead to stereotypes that trigger discrimination.’ With the ceaseless negative images of Africans exhibited across the globe, non-Africans may find it impossible to relate with Africans and people of African ancestry as human equals.

The non-contextualised images of catastrophe in Africa used for fundraising purposes stand in the way of development of the continent. No doubt, imagery of calamity is potentially beneficial for raising urgency, awareness, and funding for disaster victims, and they also help to communicate the pain of ‘distant strangers’. However, Denis (2009) cautioned that ‘image, like other forms of communication, necessarily excludes actors and truths while also concealing a particular point of view.’ Take for example, the Ebola epidemic that broke out in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea in 2014. The impression created by western media and NGOs was that the epidemic had ravaged the whole of Africa. Africa comprises 54 countries, and the Ebola epidemic was confined to five West African countries. The partial reporting of the epidemic had a devastating impact on foreign investment and international tourism to the continent as a whole. Tourism, a major source of revenue for many African countries, especially in East and South Africa, was severely hit because potential visitors were afraid to travel to the ‘continent of Ebola.’

Using images of anguish for fundraising not only impacts Africa negatively, it is potentially damaging to humanitarian endeavours. Media and humanitarian images are the lens through which the majority of non-Africans view and understand Africa. Unfortunately, the picture of Africa that aid agencies have been displaying to the world for decades is one of hopelessness. Donors might be pushed to a point where they reckon that the African situation is irredeemable; and hence withhold their donation. In a YouGov survey, 43% of 2009 adults interviewed said the perennial depressing portrayal of Africa ‘made them feel that conditions for people living in the developing world would never improve.’ The international aid agency, Oxfam, also stated: ‘the overwhelmingly negative portrayal of Africa to the British public is undermining popular support for efforts to bring an end to hunger on the continent.’ This may crumble the whole humanitarian enterprise, which depends on public donations for its survival.

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No doubt, aid agencies have altruistic goals: to provide comfort and human dignity, even in crisis situations where dignity seems impossible. They also report on the painful reality in disaster zones. The dilemma, however, is that the means to achieving these goals, which is fundraising through the use of negative images, threatens the existence of the entire operation.

How then should humanitarian agencies achieve their mandate of raising urgency, awareness and money for humanitarian crisis? The first solution that I proffered in this essay is that instead of manipulating people’s emotions towards given, NGOs should adopt a positive marketing strategy by which people can be enlightened that helping strangers is the right thing to do. Embracing IT and social media is the quickest and most cost-effective way of achieving this. Emotional manipulation could lead to donors’ antipathy. Help/donations should not just be offered out of pity or guilt – it should be offered out of human solidarity.

Secondly, the pictures that NGOs use for fundraising campaigns are voiceless and devoid of context. They usually don’t reveal the complete truth about the crises on the ground. The history and politics that led to the humanitarian disasters are often missing. Aid agencies must begin to give voices to victims; they must also listen to them. This helps give victims of disasters a human face. And while it is necessary to highlight the selfless efforts of NGOs, the efforts of locals towards self-sufficiency is also worthy of highlight. This could help make potential donors see the victims, not as people without agency, but as human equals who were just unfortunate to be caught up in crises.

Thirdly, using the photo of an emaciated child as a representation of Africa must end. The continent is not a monolithic entity. Africa comprises 54 countries, with varying cultures, histories, economies and socio-political atmospheres. Alongside their eagerness to broadcast the horrors in Africa, western media and aid agencies must endeavour to highlight the competence, diversity, and complexities of each African country. As Oxfam advised, ‘Africa’s potential, not just its problems’ must be broadcasted. The near collapse of the tourism industry from 2014-2016 in East and South Africa as a result of reporting surrounding the Ebola epidemic is an example of how misrepresentation stands in the way of African development.

It is time Africans took ownership of their own story. Since the 1984 Live Aid jamboree, many African countries have made massive economic and political strides – this is rarely emphasised in the western media. Collaboration among African and African diaspora media agents, African aid agenciesm and international aid agencies should be encouraged so that a more balanced and nuanced narrative about Africa can be projected.

Femi Akomolafe stated in his book, Black Damage: Why Africa and its diasporas are plagued with poverty, conflicts and crime, and the ways forward: ‘relief agencies will not broadcast images of white cancer patients in their dying hours (at least not without their consents).’ The same dignity should be extended to Africans so that campaigns to help will not inflict further damages on them.

Written by Femi Akomolafe, Research Associate at NIAS and author of the book Black Damage; why Africa and its diasporas are plagued with poverty, conflicts and crime, and the ways forward.


About the Author


Femi Akomolafe

Research Associate