Opinionista Kevin Bloom 11 January 2013

Let’s make Oxfam famous for its epic stupidity, not charity

The Oxford Committee for Famine Relief, lovingly known as Oxfam, has been saving Africans from themselves since soon after the British Empire upped and left the continent to its own devices. Now it has a problem. With Africa getting richer, who will make donations to its starving poor? The solution: a new publicity campaign. 

Really? “Let’s make Africa famous for its epic landscapes, not hunger,” proclaims the new banner on the landing page of Oxfam’s website. Below these words, and likewise pasted within the photograph of a series of rocky outcrops dappled by the soft hues of an African sunset, is a bright orange button. “Help end hunger,” it states. Yes, really.

So, being a lifelong fan of the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief, understanding how much this non-governmental organisation has done since 1960 to help save Africa from itself, you click the button. And voila! “This is South Sudan,” the caption to the same photograph (only here slightly smaller) informs you in bold. “Not what you were expecting? This is a country more often in the news for food shortages than its abundant natural beauty.”

Amazing, innit? And there you were, thinking there were no sunsets or rocky outcrops in Africa, only dustbowls packed to bursting point with children brushing flies from their nostrils while showing their distended bellies.

There’s more, of course. Oxfam’s “See Africa Differently” campaign wants to make Kenya famous for its food markets, not food shortages. It tells you this below a photograph of a nicely spaced array of wooden crates, all bubbling over with green and yellow and red things that look very much like food. Then it asks you for a donation for food.  

And Mali? Oxfam wants to make Mali famous for its… its… wait, there is something Mali should be famous for… yes, that’s it, doesn’t matter if we repeat ourselves… its sunsets! But not just its ordinary sunsets, it’s “glorious” sunsets. See that yellow orb going down behind those trees at the far side of the lake? See that dugout canoe with the silhouette of the fishermen in the foreground? Isn’t that photograph just glorious? Best thing is, though, Oxfam cleverly forgot to tell us what Mali was famous for before it was famous for its glorious sunsets, so with this one we don’t even have to bother getting rid of our negative stereotypes.

Verily, the campaign is looking to be a media hit in the UK. Last week, The Independent ran an analysis of it in well over 500 words, under the header, “Oxfam has it right, it’s time for aid organisations to see Africa differently”. Showing that they really do get what Oxfam is on about, the newspaper’s editors ran the piece with an image of two African men walking past one another on a busy street, while – here’s the clincher – talking on mobile phones! Repeat, mobile phones! Could Oxfam have possibly scored a bigger coup, even if it chose the picture itself? Not just rocky outcrops and glorious sunsets, but real African people talking on mobile phones!

The words of the article weren’t too shabby themselves, mind you. Did you see the third paragraph? “The negative connotations that come with the term ‘Africa’ are something that many people working on global poverty have been frustrated by for a while,” wrote Jonathan Tanner, a young man with spectacles and a red tie (the article was accompanied by a fetching mugshot) who’s clearly destined for great things. “Anger over ‘poverty porn’ and the damaging image it projects have long been the basis of calls for a change of tack. Now it seems Oxfam has stepped up to the plate: their See Africa Differently campaign encourages people to think again about the continent and the people who live there. It might not seem like a big risk but those who balance the books tell us it’s our hearts, not our minds that control the charitable impulse.

What a switched-on, well-informed, surprisingly progressive lad! You should Google him. Tanner, it appears, is the media and public affairs officer of the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), a leading UK think-tank whose mission it is “to inspire and inform policy and practice which leads to the reduction of poverty, the alleviation of suffering and the achievement of sustainable livelihoods in developing countries.” Does it matter that ODI and Oxfam have published research papers together –research papers for which both organisations receive nice donation-generated retainers – on ways to feed hungry children in Africa? Of course it doesn’t. Why would it? What are you inferring?

Neither does it matter that someone named Tolu Ogunlesi has expressed his displeasure with the See Africa Differently campaign. This young man – you have to visit his website to learn that he was born in 1982; the Guardian did not grace his article with a mugshot – believes that Britain is now guilty of the same sort of intellectual laziness once associated with Americans. Ogunlesi bases this assessment on a series of pre-campaign surveys conducted by Oxfam, which showed that one in two British respondents associated Africa with images of hunger, famine and poverty, and that three out of four were suffering from “Africa fatigue”.

“Clearly the surveys say far more about the British mind than they do about the African condition,” wrote Ogunlesi. “Now we know, courtesy of Oxfam, that all along we’ve been depending on a bunch of wallet-opening puppets to deliver us from ourselves.”

How wrong can you get? Doesn’t Ogunlesi know he’s not part of Oxfam’s target market? Apparently he’s a Nigerian poet, and when last did one of those press the “donate now” button on the Oxfam website? What’s more, the editors didn’t think his article was important enough to give it a mugshot.

It goes without saying that every time Dame Barbara Stocking writes for the Guardian she gets a mugshot. In October last year, when the editors asked the Oxfam CEO how she would lead the world out of its climate predicament, they went a step further – they put a big, beautiful picture in the main article showing her tailored cream jacket and the tasteful watch on her wrist. Behind her in the photograph was an atrium with polished wooden landings and brushed steel and lots of serotonin-friendly light. Does Ogunlesi work in an office like that?

No, and neither should he, because he obviously doesn’t care that a negative image of Africa is hampering Oxfam’s efforts to raise food aid for the continent. 

“Oxfam has led the way in drawing attention to the plight of Africa’s most vulnerable people and we aren’t trying to gloss over the problems that still beset so many of them, particularly levels of malnutrition that remain stubbornly high,” Dame Stocking told the BBC late last year. “But we’ve come a long way since the 1980s and Band Aid’s ‘Do They Know it’s Christmas?’ We need to shrug off the old stereotypes and celebrate the continent’s diversity and complexity, which is what we are attempting with this campaign.”

Like the talented Mr Tanner, Mr Ogunlesi should applaud your attempt, Dame Stocking. There is, after all, something exceedingly complex about rejecting the image of starving Africans and then asking for donations to feed those selfsame starving Africans. 

Do they know its Christmas? Or did it pass them by while they were sitting on their rocky outcrops, talking on their mobile phones and watching a glorious sunset? 

Genius! Award-winning! DM

Read more:

  • “Oxfam has it right, it’s time for aid organisations to see Africa differently,” in The Independent
  • “Oxfam’s new Africa campaign reveals a misguided messiah complex,” in the Guardian 
  • “Africa image harming aid effort, says charity Oxfam,” in BBC Online
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