Geo-branding is a serious thing. It is particularly serious when people from other geographic areas decide to brand your geographical area and the people in it, the way they see fit and the way that fits their purposes. No other country, region or continent, I’d argue, suffers from other peoples’ nonsense as much as the continent of Africa. Actually, the reason why people generally and casually talk about Africa as one place is because of what Nigerian-American author C. P. Eze refers to as “their geo-branding war”.

Warfare indeed. Eze of course is concerned with business. He argues that the image issues instigated by outsiders – oftentimes the representatives of the aid industry – hurt the business sector as the whole continent is seen as unworthy of investment. Very importantly, according to Eze, an increase of just 1% of Africa’s share of global trade would bring in US$70 billion annually; more than all aid and debt relief combined. Yet the trade with African countries is not encouraged much in the West. I have made mention of Eze’s book before, and I, as much as many others here, have written about the role the NGO sector plays in news gathering from the African continent – in short a very central one. There is no shortage of these pseudo-selfless, supposedly well meaning case studies around so lets have a look at a current one.

At the moment I am based in Helsinki, Finland, and currently all over town we are bombarded with images of a new advertising campaign.

Seemingly endless amounts of paid posters with a model depicting a generic shirtless African rebel soldier with baby-oiled-slash-sweaty body and an intense look, carrying a rifle on his back, squeezing the strap in his fist and wearing some kind of necklace, which may or may not be intended to appear witchcrafty, and a belt full of ammunition. All this makes him look like some kind of Nollywood version of Rambo against a dramatic black background. The text in the advert says “future chef” and the key that is dangling from the aforementioned necklace suggests that he needs to be given a key to a better job opportunity. That metaphoric key in real term means our financial donation and perhaps a signature in a petition which, the campaign promises, can change the destiny of this poor soul.

There are other images too; some of them featuring other models, some with the same male model, now smiling with a little less witchcrafty necklace and his upper body no longer bare, but covered with a worn-out t-shirt advertising the first US Iraq war effort from the early nineties. I am scared to even attempt to attach meaning to it. According to the photographer Antti Viitala these photos were taken in Cape Town, South Africa and the campaign was designed by Helsinki based advertising agency Dynamo. Viitala says that the models used had been spotted on the streets of Cape Town.

So they are just that; models who broadly appear to fit the purposes of the campaign. For the gentleman in the leading image that means that basically he’s black. That is enough.

The campaign is run by Finn Church Aid, a missionary and aid wing of the Finnish Lutheran Church – the state church – which especially in recent years has struggled with negative stereotypes of their own in the form of homophobia that undeniable exists within their ranks. They don’t like to be represented in a simplified manner themselves, but when it comes to others, this moral consideration is less central. The campaign is a high profile one. Its patron is Nobel Peace Prize laureate and former President of Finland Martti Ahtisaari (1994-2000) and the purpose is to both influence politicians and to raise funds. Of course it has to be said here that this problem at hand is bigger than this campaign. It’s a global issue, mainly instigated by the civil sectors, some media and a traditionally inaccurate and one-sided history of colonialism that is still being read and told in the countries of the global north. True, the Finnish church is follower rather than a leader in this, but I am curious to know a bit more about what goes on when an idea like this is born. After asking from the photographer – who was helpful but who also wasn’t sure what my point was; and I felt that that in itself was noteworthy – I emailed the public relations and communications officer Veera Hämäläinen, who is part of the team behind this campaign to hear her version of the story.

The first thing I realised from our correspondence is that Hämäläinen and I really see this whole phenomenon differently. She insists that the campaign is a positive one. She mainly feels that way because the text in the middle of the poster suggests that this shirtless rebel soldier is a future chef. So this is a positive transformation and the video version of the advert and further reading material on the campaign’s website explains this to her satisfaction.

Here’s that video:

Hämäläinen also believes that Finns are clever enough people to understand the simplification. I, as a human being, but one that could also be described as a Finn, would strongly disagree.

I watched the ad online, but haven’t seen it on TV yet – even though in our household the TV is on quite a bit (maybe our family doesn’t watch channels where church would advertise on). What I have seen, however, are tons and tons of these posters. I couldn’t imagine that under any circumstances would I have read the additional information online if I didn’t decided to write about this. I think it’s ambitious to think that people would take anything other from this campaign than, yeah, that’s Africa alright; always in trouble and always needing help–our help–nothing new. I wish this wasn’t the case but I have lived this life and heard people speak, even many very clever ones, so I am not just trying to be negative about it. I am trying to be realistic: these images have just been used as they were considered as the most effective ones regardless of their nature. Also, and I really don’t even wish to take this opportunity to be too sarcastic about it, but questioning its sources hasn’t traditionally been the church’s, or its followers’, strong point.

So I’d argue that what we are really left with is the poster and for the most part its photograph. There are a lot of these images everywhere – there hasn’t been this kind of ‘military presence’ on the streets of Helsinki since the 1940’s – but now this what appears to be a two-dimensional cloned nondescript African rebel army stares at me from my neighborhood bus stop, all the way to the office, to town and pretty much anywhere else I might want to go. From a distance, in a hurry or uninterested, one is not able to read the text – or just care to read it – and the imaging is building on our collective prejudices, our already existing ideas of Africa. I am not talking about any silly magic bullet theory here, but this is part of the same narrative that has been explained to us in media, school books and also very importantly in these aid campaigns. It’s not a question of this, or any other country’s collective cleverness, because this doesn’t break a pattern. It continues it like there simply was nothing wrong with it and based on my correspondence with campaign people I am getting a distinct sense that they don’t have any issues around this representation.

It’s quite curious how it is possible to see one thing differently. Hämäläinen explains that this campaign is unlike the ones before it: “We have chosen a different angle,” she says, “not always using images of starving children, but for a change strong young people from developing countries, who are able to be in charge of their future as long as they are given the right tools.”

So that’s what this is about: breaking the pattern. I admit this guy is no child – even though they may have been generous with the baby oil – but I just can’t see how this is a complete departure from the traditional style of imaging aid campaigns. It still communicates three very traditional ideas: 1) Africa,  2) problem and 3) ’our help needed’. I am wondering how this impacts the many people from around Africa who live and work in Finland? Is there no chance that the negative attitudes towards immigrants are strengthened if the native people conclude that we have basically done a massive favour to each and every one of them? I ask my South African wife and she’s not impressed, but of course the point here must be that one doesn’t have to be from Africa to see and condemn the problems of these image politics. Too many people are still thinking that if it’s not directly about you, then why complain. But that’s nonsense. We are all people here.

Then Hämäläinen surprises me by mentioning that this is not just about Africa though. Youth unemployment is a global issue. Of course she’s right. She continues to say that for this campaign however the developing world is the target. So not Africa as such but, (even) more broadly, the developing countries in general and this single image has been selected to communicate that. If you carefully read the website you’ll find mention of specific countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo and Honduras, although by now I think it is evident that my focus is less on what the project is about and more how they choose to communicate it. I think it would also be misleading to suggest that the small print and the big print are as effective. I’d venture a guess that not many of the ones seeing the poster will read all of the material available.

How about the trade aspect? I am wondering what this kind of campaigns that very much support our existing negative ideas of Africa – again, very generally – do in a long run to the trade? The attitudes of the business sector? Does it matter? “Trade aspect is important,” she admits, “it’s important for it to grow. In this campaign we have wanted to highlight one angle and describe the magnitude of the problem at hand – 80 million unemployed youth and most of them in the developing world – and something must be done on the grassroots level although of course, politicians could also use their own forums to make difference.”

Fair play, except essentially that is to say politely that as important as trade may be, it’s got nothing to do with us.

I am not suggesting that any overtly positive spin should necessarily be applied – just information that is more accurate, balanced and with a bit more context. Are we Europeans (North Americans, Australians, etc) so jaded that we need to be hit on the head with the worst of problems before we will react? I am asking genuinely since I don’t have an answer to this question. I have been thinking about the ethics of development aid work a lot and I think it’s still something where a lot of dialogue needs to be had.

Neither am I suggesting that these campaigns never have any positive results, but I have seen this sector enough to say that they advertise to both justify and secure their own existence and function. I know that these organisations often have glass ceilings for the staff members from the southern partner countries and I think that the aid industrial complex is altogether… well, a complex matter, but is there a realistic way for it to be something other than patronising and enforce the pre-existing ideas of geographical – and I can’t leave it unsaid, ethnic – hierarchies that are around, no matter how much you or I may wish they were not?

My understanding of this whole situation could be summarised by my five year old son’s current key phrase. “This is unfair.” I would like to think that this is more inconsiderate than evil, but we are playing with images of real people, and therefore their lives here. People are not some kind of mascots you can freely use in any way you wish for fundraising purposes in order to be able to hire yourself to help them. One problem doesn’t mandate you to create another problem. At the very latest, now is the time to discard ‘good intentions’ as sufficient justification to absolutely any shock tactics or otherwise. The Finnish church and their ilk won’t do it, but as people, surely we need to start questioning the dominant practices of aid advertising. It would still be better late than never.