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'Depressing,' 'manipulative' portrayals damage hunger work in Africa, Oxfam complains

Oxfam UK launched a new advertising campaign this week seeking to shift the focus to progress in Africa and away from 'depressing' images fostered by Live Aid and other well-intentioned efforts.
Oxfam UK launched a new advertising campaign this week seeking to shift the focus to progress in Africa and away from 'depressing' images fostered by Live Aid and other well-intentioned efforts.Oxfam UK

Twenty-seven years after Live Aid viscerally brought Africa's famine and poverty home to billions worldwide, the head of a major international charity warned Wednesday that the "depressing" stereotypes left in its wake were counterproductive and risked driving help away.

The British arm of Oxfam International called images of starving babies and other familiar depictions of Africa over the last quarter-century "manipulative and hopeless," desensitizing potential donors and leading them to the conclusion that conditions in the developing world can never improve. 

Oxfam launched a new advertising campaign this week celebrating Africa's natural beauty and progress toward alleviating hunger. Called "Food for All," the campaign features images of lush green scenery, wildlife and thriving African food markets.

The campaign's tagline: "Let's Make Africa Famous for Its Epic Landscapes, Not Hunger."

Dame Barbara Stocking, the British charity's chief executive, said in a posting on Oxfam's website that "we've come a long way since the 1980s and Band Aid's 'Do They Know It's Christmas?'"

But "we need to shrug off the old stereotypes and celebrate the continent's diversity and complexity," she contended.

Band Aid, the musical charity supergroup formed in 1984 by Bob Geldof and Midge Ure, recorded "Do They Know It's Christmas?" in response to the crippling famine in Ethiopia. In 2004, on the song's 20th-anniversary re-release, the World Development Movement condemned it as "patronizing, false and out of date."

Geldof and Ure organized the landmark fundraising concert Live Aid in 1985, bringing dire conditions in Africa front and center to people around the world.

"'Patronizing' isn't the word" to describe the message fostered by Band Aid and other well-intentioned campaigns, Stocking said Wednesday in an interview on Sky News. "It's just this negativity. ...

"In order for people to understand what's happening in Africa, we've also got to tell the good stories, and there has been good news in Africa," said Stocking, who is retiring in the new year after serving with the charity since 2001. 

"Otherwise, people just feel put off and (believe) there's nothing that can be done about Africa," she said. "And that's the big worry for us — that people feel it's all hopeless, when it clearly isn't."

World Bank statistics indicate that the world's heaviest concentration of malnutrition remains in Africa, afflicting as many as 15 percent of all children under 5 in some countries in the southern and eastern regions. And in June, the U.N. Children's Fund reported that 1.5 million children were at imminent risk of starvation in the western half of the continent.

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But while acknowledging that international aid has made few if any inroads on hunger, Oxfam said in a report this month that countries south of the Sahara Desert had made "one of the most remarkable turnarounds in development ... in the last decade." It called the 22 years from 1990 to 2011 an "African renaissance."

Oxfam: Africa is wide awake but still hungry (.pdf)

"Economies have been growing even in the face of economic and financial instability elsewhere in the world, poverty has fallen and child mortality has dropped considerably, among the most visible indicators of progress," the report said.

The real story, Stocking said Wednesday, is that "aid money is really working."

But in the end, she said, "we don't want to have to give aid money to Africa. We want economic development, enterprise — that's what we're really aiming to do."

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