Africa is not a country

Yewande Keleko

In this opinion piece, London-based scriptwriter Yewande Keleko calls for a change in western attitudes toward Africa, starting with a balanced view of the continent by their media

Y’seeeee… to borrow Fuse ODG’s familiar refrain, aid on its own does not work, and I agree with his decision not to participate in Sir Bob Geldof’s well-meaning Band-Aid 30 fundraising efforts to fight Ebola.

In a statement, Fuse ODG, a British musician of Ghanaian descent, explained that he initially agreed to be part of Band Aid 30 when he was approached by Geldof. However, upon receiving the proposed lyrics, Fuse ODG felt the message of the Band Aid 30 song was not in line with the message of his This Is New Africa Movement. ‘I was sceptical because of the lyrics and the videos of the previous charity singles, and I worried that this would play into the constant negative portrayal of the continent of Africa in the west,’ he said.

Bob Geldof understands where he’s coming from: ‘He’s quite right Fuse, this ridiculous image of this continent, seven of the top ten fastest growing economies in the planet are African and of those seven, five are countries where Band Aid operated.’
Fuse ODG’s New Africa Movement is not a new idea. However, it is timely and necessary because as Geldof pointed out, there is a glaring contradiction in Africa’s whole reality and how the continent is portrayed by the western media. Positive African truths and stories are commonly ignored in favour of the more familiar and headline grabbing stories of war, poverty and disease. Unfortunately, however altruistic, Band-Aid is typical of this approach where Africa is a problem and needs hand-outs from people in the west to survive, or Africans are simply unable to help themselves.

This viewpoint totally ignores real stories of economic revival with creative and organic business start-ups against all the odds. Struggles faced by individuals every day all around the world of overcoming daily hardships ranging from running a company surrounded by corruption and a lack of infrastructure or fighting off or dying from Ebola. It could be of people speaking up and protesting for their rights as most recently evidenced by the Burkinabe uprising, and of impacting the world culturally as evidenced by Afrobeat, Nollywood, African fashion and traditions to name just a few examples.

Fuse ODG: concerns with Band Aid-30 lyrics
Fuse ODG: concerns with Band Aid-30 lyrics

The imbalance of how Africa is portrayed in the media does more harm than good. While the appeal of bad news to draw in viewers and boost circulation is clear, these same viewers and readers whom aid organisations and Geldof call upon to fundraise are not being told the whole truth. This then limits their choices, compassion and efforts to help those in need. Aid, just like colonialism, mainly serves the aims of the donors rather than the recipients. Many decades of aid has not banished poverty, hunger or Ebola from Africa. It is a complex issue which many have tried to unravel. A recent report by Health Poverty Action illustrates an indigent relationship between aid donors and many recipient countries’ elites. This limits any positive impact of aid’s intended recipients. The problem is further compounded by criminal activities and corruption by wealthy elites and their international collaborators, ineffective internal policies and increasing economic and social disparities. Aid in its current format does not do what it says on the tin. It has evolved into a lucrative business which mainly favours its primary stakeholders.

The international aid industry requires Africa to remain in disarray and in continuous need, enabling the organisations built to serve this need in business. Like Bob Geldof, many of these organisations started off in good faith and with the best of intentions, one can assume. However, with the exception of Médecins Sans Frontières, whose aim is direct medical and humanitarian aid, and who were the only organisation aiding West African countries in the Ebola fight from the beginning, these organisations have continued to grow in size and less so in affecting positive outcomes on their chosen humanitarian issues.

In 2014, Africans live with terrifying realities. One child dying of starvation every 3 seconds, HIV/AIDS has destabilised and continues to decimate whole communities, leaving children orphaned and fending for themselves. Ebola is a terrible disease and, apart from the unfolding human tragedy, is also another blow to the poor economies of West Africa. Aid organisations have barely altered these facts because in order to ensure their own well-being and existence as organisations, they have to work within corrupt systems with elite classes who ensure the impoverishment of their own people. They continue to provide aid primarily in monetary terms, when other options of aiding impoverished countries such as the reduction of international debt and supporting trade and business with micro financing for example, would effect more change in a day than a decade of aid.

Imagine a world where people are actually able to achieve the kind of impact they envisaged when moved to address a need or an injustice? Sending money through faceless organisations in the hope that it will save lives is a tried, tested and failed first world approach. What if the western media highlighted good stories as well? Redressing the imbalance and showing that Africa is not a country. It is a diverse continent filled with many different countries with many different people who speak many different languages, but who face many of the same problems people all over the world face. Maybe then, people will be able to choose more effectively how or if they want to engage with people in Africa. Maybe then, humanitarian organisations will have to prove their worth and the dynamics of aid will change forever.

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