The boy who cried crisis

One has to wonder why, in the hyper-connected world of 2011, why negative stereotypes of Africa as the dark continent (and land of rape and lions) are so persistent. Ted Nugent, who for some reason is allowed to write for the Washington Times, revealed perceptions which are all too common in the States:

There is no country in Africa that truly respects freedom or the rule of law. The majority of countries in Africa are in economic ruin because of political corruption and a history ugly with cruel despotism. That’s why starvation and disease are rampant. AIDS is projected to kill as much as half the populations of some countries. Genocide is a way of life. There is little light in Africa.

(Speaking as a redhead whose skin is genetically adapted to cold, mossy caves somewhere in Ireland, but occasionally gets on a plane to Dar es Salaam, I can safely say that if there is anything that Africa is lacking, it isn’t light.)

Many of these stereotypes are perpetuated by people who are actively trying to improve the plight of the poor. I’ve written too many times about how NGOs favor poverty porn because it brings in the dollars. The same is true of presenting development not as a challenge, but as a crisis. Karen Rothmyer writes about these perverse incentives in the Columbia Journalism review (hat tip to Charles Kenny):

But the main reason for the continued dominance of such negative stereotypes, I have come to believe, may well be the influence of Western-based non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and international aid groups like United Nations agencies. These organizations understandably tend to focus not on what has been accomplished but on convincing people how much remains to be done. As a practical matter, they also need to attract funding. Together, these pressures create incentives to present as gloomy a picture of Africa as possible in order to keep attention and money flowing, and to enlist journalists in disseminating that picture.

Many who work in the industry admit that these practices are unfortunate, but pass them off as being necessary. Dumbing down advocacy is amazingly effective at bringing in the dollars, and NGOs know this. The framing of development as a “glass is half empty” problem pervades is even apparent in the way that policymakers talk about the Millennium Development Goals: we focus not on the amazing gains made in developing countries, but on what they haven’t yet accomplished. The story is always one of perpetual crisis.

But there are consequences to always preaching doom and gloom – Charles Kenny, over at the CGD, writes about how the NGO communities dependency on negative talk to generate revenue might be backfiring in the long run:

If it is much easier to communicate tragedy than success, it clearly makes sense for each individual agency or NGO to get their message out by trumpeting catastrophe.  But there are real negatives to that approach.  Rothmyer mentions that it skews policymaking towards disaster management, deters investment and is dispiriting to people in Africa working for change.

Beyond that, if every agency continually cries crisis, it reduces the incentive to give assistance to any of them.  If, after fifty years of working to improve conditions in Africa by NGOs, aid agencies and governments, everyone agrees we’re still in a crisis, that surely suggests it is pointless to try to help. We’ve failed to lift a crisis for fifty years –what’s different now?  Aid fatigue (despair at “pouring money down foreign rat-holes”, in Senator Jesse Helms’ impassioned complaint a decade-plus ago) seems eminently logical.

Kenny portrays this as a classic tragedy of the commons situation: optimism is kind of a global commons, one that is depleted every time an NGO focuses on the horror, the horror of it all. The aid/charity community would probably be better off if everyone stopped doing this, but the private incentives to continue are just too great.

That said, we should be cautious not to stray too far over to the other side – when aid agencies and NGOs do claim things are getting better, they are awfully eager to make it seem like they are the ones making the difference, often with very little evidence. This could also be seen as being necessary to securing funding, but will do little to weed out the least effective organisations.

4 thoughts on “The boy who cried crisis

  1. c-sez

    March 24, 2011 at 5:49pm

    I don’t think its an either/or. If we can somehow establish a background understanding like ‘Africa is making great progress…’, then the messaging around particular disasters can be ‘… so wouldn’t it be a huge shame for this disaster to knock that progress off track’. I’d donate to that.

  2. ewaffle

    March 25, 2011 at 12:07am

    “Ted Nugent, who for some reason is allowed to write for the Washington Times”

    The bar for having a column in the Washington Times is set extremely low. It might have something to do with it being owned by the Unification Church.

  3. geckonomist

    March 25, 2011 at 12:49pm

    The local staff has a double moral hazard in this:

    1) The miserable situation justifies their presence there. If the problems are solved, they are out of job.

    2) The more miserable they can present their situation, the more cash & perks they receive.
    Most organizations work with “hardship” tables. The bigger the difference between the place on the hardship table and the reality on the ground, the more fun life is.
    Hence, they always have to emphasize how awful it is, even when they are living like God in France.

  4. Alex Jacobs

    March 29, 2011 at 12:13pm

    Did you see Madonna’s spectacular crash and burn on Africa this week? Her NGO, Raising Malawi, apparently aims to end ‘extreme poverty once and for all’ for all of Malawi’s children. But they’ve just closed a project that wasted $3.8m NOT building an elite school. Analysis and lessons: http://wp.me/p1dBWk-e6

    What will she take out of the wreckage? Modesty and judgement?

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