Aladdin Benali looks at the role of charity in African development
Despite commonly held views, change in Africa has been overwhelming positive. For instance conflict, once widespread in the continent and devastating, is reducing. In a recent regional study, American think-tank The Centre for Systemic Peace has measured that between 1998-2014 the total conflict score in Sub-Saharan Africa has drastically fallen from 55 to 30. The Peace Research Institute Oslo corroborates this, showing a marked decline in the number of African conflicts. The civil wars in Mozambique, Angola, Sudan, Liberia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Burundi, Guinea-Bissau, Ivory Coast, Chad and Uganda have all ended.
Disease rates in Africa are also falling. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that rates of HIV/AIDS, the continent’s biggest killer, have fallen by 48% since their peak in 2005. Malaria rates have taken a similar downturn. The numbers of deaths from malaria have plunged by 60% since 2000, translating into 6.2 million lives saved.
The incidence of extreme poverty has similarly diminished, from 57% in 1990 to 43% today, with the World Bank predicting that most African countries will reach ‘middle income’ status (defined as at least US$1,000 per person a year) by 2025. Increased economic stability has resulted in a sharp increase in growth. In 2016, Africa was the world’s second fastest-growing continent with an estimated GDP growth rate of 2.2%, and the African Development Bank expects an increase to 3.4% in 2017.
These changing statistics provide a positive message for global development. However, Africa continues to be seen overwhelmingly through a hyper-negative lens in advertised appeals from charities. Pessimistic perceptions of a monolithic Africa defined by poverty are still widely propagated.
These appeals warp our understanding of the diversity of change in Africa. Some elicit pity instead of hope, ignoring the optimistic outlook that recent positive changes in the continent should clearly induce. Continuous exposure to hyper-negative charity appeals may not only cause distress and desensitise us to the suffering of others, their reliance on empathy also has troubling results.
Empathy, as Yale Psychologist Paul Bloom explains, is based on immediate feelings of distress to another’s pain. The sharp sense of pity is then followed by guilt, which is then satisfied in a process of cathartic self-gratification by a one-off donation.
Philosopher Charles Goodman calls this using the suffering of others as currency, arguing in his 2009 work Consequences of Compassion for compassion in charitable causes instead of empathy. Goodman concludes that the former constitutes a sustainable alternative that is more distanced and more reserved.
Both charities and donors should heed the warnings of Bloom and Goodman for three reasons. First, appeals based purely on empathetic pity are commonly mistrusted by audiences. Second, even if trusting, audiences have been shown to suffer from what is called compassion fatigue when exposed to a constant barrage of human suffering; they become passive and desensitised to repetitive displays of misery, as theorised by Susan Moeller. While negative appeals are more attention grabbing, and may raise more money in the short term, the never-ending cycle of empathetic distress not only results in emotional exhaustion, but also prevents supporting sustainable development in the region.
Thirdly, empathy means charities are often inundated with donations during crises, but struggle for donations otherwise. Following the 2010 Haiti earthquake, for example, total donations quickly exceeded $3.5 billion. However, not only did charities receive more money than they could ever need for the disaster, most donations took too long to process to have any immediate use.
Indeed, many NGOs cannot accept donations when they have received more than they need for a specific disaster. Less than a week after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) stopped accepting donations for tsunami relief. After the 2011 earthquake in Japan, the Japanese Red Cross issued a statement claiming it needed no further contribution from donors.
Most importantly however, hyper-negative messages from charities ignore the enormous progress that has already been made in Africa. Rather than showing sufferers as helpless victims we can focus instead on their agency and dignity. Researchers Wegener & Petty suggest that advertisements incorporating positive messages are more effective since they result in the spectator feeling more favourable towards their subject. Indeed, the role of international aid is limited.
The fact of Africa’s continuous growth challenges the role of charity in genuinely improving people’s lives. Often, intervention lacking any forethought can exacerbate poverty. For example, a 2012 Bristol University study found that improving water supplies in Ethiopian villages increased population, forcing more young people to move to the city slums to find work. Food aid has also been proven to fall into the danger of destroying local agriculture, serving the interests of Western agribusiness instead.
Growth is arguably the way forward for Africa. The continent’s GDP is projected to reach $29 trillion by 2050. The reduction of conflict, the fall of disease rates and growth in the economy signify rapid change. In 2013/14, Sub-Saharan African countries accounted for 5 of the 10 most improved in the World Bank’s ‘doing business’ rating. This is largely due to the region recently carrying out some of the most extensive business-friendly regulatory reforms in the world.
What’s more, new investment opportunities are expanding in fast-growing sectors such as telecommunications, banking, agriculture, infrastructure, energy and consumer goods, with consumer spending forecasted to reach $1.4 trillion in 2020. Africa is ready for business, and these signs show that continent is moving towards lasting growth, wealth creation, and prosperity.
Many charities will continue to use campaigns that suit immediate developmental needs. There is often no immediate interest in changing perceptions. But perceptions must change. Appeals should take into account Africa’s bright future and immense recent success. Appeals ought to reach for compassion as a more sustainable and positive aspect of human nature, rejecting their current pleas for unconstructive empathy. Most importantly, however, donors need to become wiser humanitarians, and understand the limitations of the role of international aid and the part that we can play in this ever-changing continent.