It’s time to change the tune on African aid’s sob story



As Christmas fast approaches, the roll out of hard hitting charity ads has begun, guilt-tripping consumers over the fact that we just spent over £100 on a Waitrose shop and offering us an easy way to balance the scales by texting SAVEALIFE and donating £3 to an African child. BandAid’s 1984 charity appeal ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ is back in the charts, with such catchy and heart-rendering lines as “there won’t be snow in Africa this Christmas time” and “the greatest gift they’ll get this year is life”.


While no doubt the coming together of celebrities to make a fundraising appeal as grating and diminutive as this raised considerable amounts of money and appeals to members the general public, I can’t help but attach it to a larger issue in the way charitable organisations advertise. We see it repeatedly – in posters, on the TV, in everything from appeals for sad, overworked donkeys with flies in their eyes, to appeals for sad, starving children with flies in their eyes; there’s little to distinguish these adverts even though the subject matter is so blatantly different. This year, I’d love to see a charity appeal where a struggling African mother isn’t shown silently clutching her swollen-bellied child with beseeching eyes staring into the camera, while a British voice intones that you, and yes only YOU, dear white, British, kindhearted stranger can save her. Give her the microphone and let her tell us for herself what she needs.


This type of advertising is no doubt the most effective. Naturally, it runs on human empathy, hence focusing on mothers and children, naturally, it only portrays one side of the story, because it’s that particularly unaesthetic side which is going to have you reaching for your wallet come Boxing Day while you’re lying on the sofa, guilty and full, reminded that people are starving all over the world. 

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However the problem, and one I think is very real, is that it presents one story of whole continents like Africa, a story that is not representative of the majority. Africa, we are told, is a place – one I still hear referred to as a country – of vast deserts and exotic animals, of war and famine and thirst. “Nothing ever grows” in Africa (again, BandAid) and indeed, “no rain or rivers flow” (certainly not the second longest river in the world). The people are portrayed as mute and incapable of knowing what would improve their own lives.


Enter the empowered, heroic Westerner, whose donation of £3 a month will change the lives of one of these impoverished families, resulting in endless gratitude from the helpless African and a sense of moral satisfaction for the Brit. Whose image is this type of advertisement helping?

The damage of appeals like these is that it strips people from less economically developed countries of their voice and disempowers them from taking control of their own development altogether; in these campaigns they are never portrayed as the ones to move themselves out of poverty, but rely on the kind Westerner donating, incidentally, from the homeland of Africa’s old colonial masters – the ones that left African countries in the damaged economic state they are still trying to recover from today.


Is it not time we change the tune on Africa’s story, show its diversity, maybe feature a successful, female, black African professional for a change or even start talking about which African country is facing the issues the campaign is confronting, rather than blanketing all these problems under one pigeon-holing term: Africa? I can’t help but link the current tone of these appeals with the rhetoric of the original British ‘humanitarians’: the slavery abolitionists of the 1800’s. The poor black man, submissive and docile and appealing for white British help (Hall, 1993) is a concept that doesn’t seem to have gone out of fashion in the past 200 years, and there is something deeply disturbing in the fact that we are still buying into it. This is not the world we live in. We know that, NGOs know that – and it’s time that they start showing it.




Source bibliography:

Bennett, D (2009), Aid Watch Grinch Edition: Are We Mean To Ask That NGO Ads Not Be Simplistic and Wrong? Available at:

Hall, C (1993) “‘From Greenland’s Icy Mountains . . . to Afric’s Golden Sands’: Ethnicity, Race and Nation in Mid-Nineteenth-Century England”, Gender & History, Vol.5 No.2 pp. 212-230

Lambert, D and Lester, A (2004) “Geographies in Colonial Philanthropy” Progress in Human Geography, 28,3 pp. 320-341

Mbaye, B (2006) “The Economic, Political, and Social impact of the Atlantic Slave Trade on Africa.” The European Legacy: Toward New Paradigms 607-622. Available online: file:///home/chronos/uaa977e500c5a17446ce7626709fffad3f09c634d/Downloads/The_Economic_Political_and_Social_Impac%20(2).pdf

Mohanty, Chandra Talpade (1991) “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses” in Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism, ed. Mohanty, Chandra Talpade, Ann Russo and Lourdes Torres. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press

Ngozi Adichie, C (2009), The Danger of a Single Story, TED Talks. Available online at:

Schwittay, A (2013) ‘Representing Financial Inclusion.’ Anthropology Today 29(5): 9-12.

Wainaina, B (2005) ‘How to Write About Africa’, Granta 92. Available at:


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