When Good Causes Go Bad

28/11/2012 15:27 GMT | Updated 27/01/2013 10:12 GMT

As the freezing winter months encroach, spare a thought for the children of Norway, freezing and in dire need of donations of heaters. This is the message of the charity single recently released by Norwegian group, Radi-Aid, which has just launched an appeal, complete with a Band Aid style music video, for African countries to ship radiators to Scandinavia. Yes, you did read that correctly.

The unusual 'Africa for Norway' appeal is - needless to say - highly satirical, and despite any comedic or ironic value it may be seen to have, it launches a serious and arguable overdue critique of misguided development and aid campaigns and the Western media coverage that often accompanies it. Radi-Aid, which was created by The Norwegian Students' and Academics' International Assistance Fund (SAIH), with funding from The Norwegian for Development Cooperation (Norad) and The Norwegian Children and Youth Council (LNU), seeks to challenge traditional aid campaigns and depictions of Africa that relies on stereotypes of extreme poverty and hunger.

The ethos behind the campaign is summed up by Radi-Aid's official line, which says: "Imagine if every person in Africa saw the "Africa for Norway" video and this was the only information they ever got about Norway. What would they think about Norway? If we say Africa, what do you think about? Hunger, poverty, crime or AIDS? No wonder, because in fundraising campaigns and media that's mainly what you hear about."

As the organisation clearly points out, it is true that the majority of Western media coverage - and especially televised or written appeals - tends to focus on and exploit stereotypes of extreme hunger and poverty across the African continent, to the extent where this is often the chief association made by Westerners with Africa. A researcher from Illinois State University recently concluded that 'an analysis of the Western news media demonstrates that structural biases and operating frameworks perpetuate negative attitudes toward Africa and Africans. The media primarily focuses on crisis news while positive representations are delegitimized. Statistical analysis demonstrates Africa is not only misrepresented, but it is underrepresented in international news coverage'.

Indeed, for many years, the primary and principal depictions of Africa have in fundraising campaigns which have shown the Western world images of starving children with flies in their eyes, images which may be effective in temporarily engaging donors, but ones with which Radi-Aid, amongst other organisations, take issue with on several grounds.

A major concern is that such pictures create an impression of perpetual poverty, and that as a consequence people in the West simply 'give up' on Africa because it seems like nothing is getting any better. Radi-Aid stresses that there are many positive developments in African countries, which it believes should become known in the wider world, and that the current picture painted to the majority of Western audiences is far too simplistic, limiting knowledge and understanding of the continent due to paternalistic assumptions and a distance and removed sense of pity.

Raymond Tarek Balleh, a prolific blogger on the subject of representations of Africa, supports this assumption, writing that "the Western media continues to have a field day at Africa's expense, doing a great disservice to the efforts of many Africans who have made significant changes and progress in their respective locations." Radi-Aid states explicitly that "Africa should not just be something that people either give to, or give up on," and that "if we want to address the problems the world is facing we need to do it based on knowledge and respect".

Indeed, Radi-Aid's demands are focalised on the need for improved media coverage of African affairs, and an end to fundraising tactics which rely on the exploitation of stereotypes. They argue that audiences become tired and desensitised to excessive depictions of poverty and pain in the world, and that in order to change anything on the ground, a change in representation is necessary. "We want better information about what is going on in the world, in schools, in TV and the media," they explain. "We want to see more nuances. We want to know about positive developments in Africa and developing countries, not only about crises, poverty and AIDS. We need more attention on how western countries have a negative impact on developing countries".

The question of respect shown by the media in these campaigns is a difficult and uncomfortable one. Ethical standards in reporting are arguably more lax in African coverage: few - if any - publications would print a photograph of a starving white baby without permission, but no such rules seem to be applied to African children, who are frequently held up as poster boys and girls for fundraising campaigns designed to entice audiences to donate out of pity or guilt. Such double-standards in terms of ethics and the violation of privacy are widespread, and can justifiably be harshly criticised in a society which purports to support equality and human rights.

Balleh takes this as a more fundamental problem, arguing that "this pattern of news coverage is a carefully choreographed mechanism designed to give the Western viewer a sense of comfort and superiority over other peoples and nations." His comments, however radical, raise profoundly uncomfortable questions for the West's understanding of itself: possibly in a paternalistic sense that is unnervingly close to the colonial attitudes of yesteryear.

These observations and concerns are - as all are keen to emphasise - not to say that Africa is a continent without problems, nor to undermine the severity of the hardships faced by huge numbers of people there. Instead, organisations such as Radi-Aid and thinkers such as Balleh are seeking to challenge Western perceptions and attitudes in order to bring about real and lasting change and development that is unhindered by the baggage of oft-exploited stereotypes. Radi-Aid, along with various other groups, believes that this change cannot be brought about by aid alone, but equally through cooperation, investment and structural changes - and it is for this reason that they are calling for the maturation of Western attitudes towards the developing world.

In a culture of 'gap yahs' and charitable causes, none of which should necessarily be thought inherently wrong, Radi-Aid and its sympathisers make an important statement for the future of aid in the developing world: aid must be based on real needs, not just good intentions.

This article was originally published in 'The Student' newspaper at the University of Edinburgh, 27th November 2012.