When most people in our generation think of Africa, two things come to mind: Bono and babies with distended bellies.
Our impressions of sub-Saharan Africa, influenced heavily by what we see on the news and the internet, focus almost entirely on, and often tie in, the issue of poverty — whether it is through a story on healthcare or one on education. The fact that Western media has reduced an entire continent to a single dimension is troubling not only because it is patronizing, but also because it is a simple misrepresentation of the region and its struggles.
Since coverage almost always boils down to poverty, sub-Saharan Africa has lost its dignity and become the beggar of the world in the West’s popular imagination.
This is not to say that poverty is not a legitimate concern. The famine in Somalia is certainly an issue. But it isn’t the only issue. The region is more than poverty — there is also politics and culture for the media to cover, with interesting and compelling issues ranging from rioting in Nigeria to Malawi’s exclusion from the All Africa Games.
One of the main issues with the narrow representation of Africa is that since the coverage tends to focus on the region’s lack of wealth, the plights of the area appear to be easy to fix simply if the West throws money at the region. The problem with this is that it does not accurately report the needs of the region. While our charity and aid money is useful in the short-term by feeding the hungry and medicating the sick, and while it eases our consciences, it does little to ensure sustainable long-term solutions to the problems plaguing the region.
The true struggles of the region, which academics suggest are tied to a bad habit of dependency on Western aid as well as corruption of leaders, are structural and institutional difficulties. It is not poverty, necessarily, that is problematic, but the inability of the government to help its citizens out of poverty. Not a lack of aid, but the lack of institutional accountability that keeps aid from reaching those who need it. So, it is only by looking beyond poverty that the media can present a more accurate picture of the region.
Even though it is evident that poverty is not the only African issue, the Western media’s oversimplification is understandable — poverty is easier to sell than something dull but accurate like institutional accountability or continuing coverage of conflicts to a war-weary audience. But making the region more multi-dimensional and less superficial by covering culture, innovation, and politics will help humanize Africa and make it seem less like a region defined and plagued only by poverty.
While the media might not necessarily be responsible for the fate and future of the region, it does have a duty to accurately represent the region and the situation as it stands. If we really care about learning about Africa, then we need to move beyond Bono’s concerts and Madonna’s baby from Malawi.
Photo Credit: World Economic Forum