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Last update: 1 July 2022 h. 10:44
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NGOs present false images of Africa

A coalition of Canadian non-government organisations, church groups, unions, and others with an interest in sub-Saharan Africa says that the images of Africa that have been presented in the media and fundraising activities have done much more harm than good for the people of Africa.
Amos Safo

As Africa struggles to present a case for the G8 leaders to help it out of its present precarious economic situation, the activities of some non-governmental organisations have been seen as doing more harm than good to the continent.

It came to light during various sessions of the G8 and G6B summits that, in their fund raising activities, some NGOs present false images about Africa in order to attract donors.

The Africa-Canada Forum (ACF) articulated these sentiments on June 24. The ACF brought together NGOs, churches, unions, and solidarity groups from across Canada that have a specific interest in development issues and social justice in sub-Saharan Africa.

The ACF said these false images of Africa, if not curtailed, paint a bleak picture about a continent that has no hope, save depending on charity from the west. In the end, some donors, rather than sympathising with Africa, become reluctant to release funds for humanitarian activities.

The ACF stopped short of naming the NGOs involved in tarnishing the image of Africa. However, it is an undeniable fact that some NGOs highlight natural disasters to raise money, which ends up in private pockets. In Ghana, as in other African countries, the multiplicity of these one-person types of NGOs that are mostly owned by spouses and run from bedrooms, have become a public nuisance, it was reported during the forum.

Molly Kane, co-president of ACF who led the June 24 deliberations, told a moving story of how Canadians turned on their TV sets a few years back and saw pictures of a white South African helicopter crew rescuing a Mozambican woman who had given birth on a tree during severe floods. She said the shocking image attracted attention and triggered public sympathies that resulted nit eh sending of aid, which had been slow in arriving.

Kane said that what Canadians were not told was how local people, including the Mozambican navy, organised themselves and assisted thousands of people in need before international aid arrived.

She said the Canadian people were left with, and responded to, an image of white South Africans saving black people, not blacks saving one another. "This is a media image, but are NGO images counteracting or reinforcing media images of Africa?", Kane asked.

She said that during most of the last century, the picture painted of Africa was of helpless victims trapped by bleak prospects on a rural continent with few men and many women. Most of the pictures reflected people in need, rather than the obstacles they faced. She pointed out that these images failed to show the full diversity of life that exists in Africa.

A document circulated during the deliberations indicated that many fundraising organisation have been concerned about so-called 'poornography' images: portraying the people as helpless and passive objects. "These displays often illustrated how doom and gloom images are only part of the problems of Africa," the document said.

"Organisations that would never consider showing a starving child, instead choose to show a smiling child, but there is still no sign of parents or a family. This is a continent where a child is considered a village child, raised only by their parents," lamented the document.

ACF points out that such images presented by some NGOs contribute to Afro-pessimism among the Canadian public and the rest of the west.

A study by Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO) found out that when asked to comment about the developing world or "Third World," many respondents simply mentioned "war, famine, disaster, starvation, and corruption."

Worryingly, the study said 74 percent of the survey's respondents felt that developing countries - more than half of which are from Africa - depend upon money and knowledge from the west. In short, Africa has been portrayed by some NGOs as a continent that is only skilled in begging.

And this is so because 80 percent of the African population lives in rural areas, where most NGOs work. Besides, rural life is more photogenic, while urban programming usually involves capacity building and is much harder to portray as images that would appeal to Canadians and western donors.

ACF feels these negative images must change as the continent strives to attract the G8 leaders and international community to give out more money for Africa's development. In its own small way, ACF has begun a process of self-reflection based on assessment of images used by NGOs in fundraising activities.

The ACF self-reflection process couldn't have come at a more appropriate time when Africa is in dire need of foreign direct investment that had been withheld because of false images and the general portrayal of Africa as a dangerous destination for investment.

But as world leaders gathered in Kananaskis in June, the issue of whether Africa would be given a better deal defied answers. Although Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien repeatedly assured concerned Canadians and Africans that he would not let the Middle East crises divert attention from Africa's needs, U.S. President George Bush's wish of seeking G8 assistance to fight terrorism and oust Saddam Hussein of Iraq from power took center stage.

Chretien said on June 25 that having the G8 Summit to rescue Africa out of poverty was, and would remain, his focus from now. However, signs that he would eventually cave into Bush's sweeping demands to focus on the Middle East and terrorism as a growing international need begun to show when Bush arrived on June 25 for the meeting.

During a brief discussion prior to the actual meeting, Chretien offered his first tentative support for the controversial plan to pay special attention to the Middle East crisis and terrorism, perhaps to the neglect of critical issues confronting Africa.

The United States largely influences Canada domestically and internationally. Trade figures show that Canada depends upon the United States for 87 percent of its international trade. The Canadian Council for International Co-operation, however, argues that while the U.S. is Canada's most important trading partner, Canada has seen important growth in its trade with developing countries.

Besides, the two countries share several things in common and are bound culturally and historically. The need to keep a balance between U.S. interests and the needs of African countries puts Canada in a tight corner when it comes to making independent decisions on controversial foreign policy issues such as the Middle East crisis and NEPAD.

NEPAD seeks the eradication of poverty in Africa through a "new relationship between Africa and the international community, especially the highly industrialized countries to overcome the development chasm that has widened over the centuries of unequal relations."

In spite of that, the new breed of Canadians say they want Canada to chart an independent foreign policy based on respect for human rights and the ratification of all U.N. conventions that respect international law and global peace.

The just-ended summit has proved that Canadians want their government to add NEPAD to the list of its international priorities. Just how the Chretien government would balance the African agenda with the interests of the United States remains to be seen.

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