Karen Rothmyer writing in this month’s Columbia Journalism Review on why NGOs prefer bad news when it comes to Africa:
But the main reason for the continued dominance of such negative stereotypes, I have come to believe, may well be the influence of Western-based non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and international aid groups like United Nations agencies. These organizations understandably tend to focus not on what has been accomplished but on convincing people how much remains to be done. As a practical matter, they also need to attract funding. Together, these pressures create incentives to present as gloomy a picture of Africa as possible in order to keep attention and money flowing, and to enlist journalists in disseminating that picture.
Africans themselves readily concede that there continues to be terrible conflict and human suffering on the continent. But what’s lacking, say media observers like Sunny Bindra, a Kenyan management consultant, is context and breadth of coverage so that outsiders can see the continent whole—its potential and successes along with its very real challenges. “There are famines; they’re not made up,” Bindra says. “There are arrogant leaders. But most of the journalism that’s done doesn’t challenge anyone’s thinking.”
Over the past thirty years, NGOs have come to play an increasingly important role in aid to Africa. A major reason is that Western donors, worried about government corruption, have channelled more funds through them. In the mid-1970s, less than half a dozen NGOs (like the Red Cross or CARE) might operate in a typical African country, according to Nicolas van de Walle, a professor of government at Cornell, but now the same country will likely have 250.
This explosive NGO growth means increasing competition for funds. And according to the head of a large US-based NGO in Nairobi, “When you’re fundraising you have to prove there is a need. Children starving, mothers dying. If you’re not negative enough, you won’t get funding.” So fierce is the competition that many NGOs don’t want to hear good news. An official of an organization that provides data on Somalia’s food situation says that after reporting a bumper harvest last year, “I was told by several NGOs and UN agencies that the report was too positive.”
Rasna Warah, a Kenyan who worked for UN-Habitat before leaving to pursue a writing career, says that exaggerations of need were not uncommon among aid officials she encountered. “They wanted journalists to say ‘Wow.’ They want them to quote your report,” she says. “That means more money for the next report. It’s really as cynical as that.”
The whole article is worth a read, even though, as American journalist Jina Moore points out in the comments, to go in search of a “real” Africa (as Rothmyer’s title suggests) or to frame this discussion in terms of “good” news versus “bad” news coming out of Africa is to engage in the same work of reducing Africa’s stories to simplistic narratives. But we’ll let Chris Abani tell you about that.