“Maybe outsiders felt that in this green preindustrial continent it might still be possible to avoid the horrors that had come to Europe–war, machines, materialism, frozen food–to develop a happier place. He often felt that, as well as a sense of responsibility, almost the conceit of ownership. As long as Africa remained unfinished, there was hope.” – “The Lower River”, Paul Theroux
The lines are drawn from the novel “The Lower River” which I brought to Malawi. In fact, I chose this book randomly by searching “Novels about Malawi” online. I never thought this book would stimulate such reflection on my stay in Malawi.
“As long as Africa remained unfinished, there was hope.”
The Narratives Created by NGOs.
There seems to be some conflict of interest in this statement; and I sometimes found myself stuck in this contradiction as well. During my stay in Malawi, interacting with local communities, working as an intern at an NGO, and writing blogs on social media, I couldn’t stop thinking the “narrative” of Africa created by myself and most development workers. “How would you depict Africa?” “Are we building hope for Africa by making it remain developing in a devaluing way?” “Why are some pictures chosen to be featured by NGOs?”
There is this long existing “grand narrative” of this continent, shaped by public media, NGOs, and even individuals, which often shows great poverty and tragedies that attracts aids. A single picture or story can be so influential and serve fundraising purpose. However, though the depiction may be true, this kind of partial truth may be problematic sometimes. For instance, the pictures used in NGOs publications create a certain image of the great continent which can unintentionally guide the readers and donors’ impression on Africa and further establish various assumptions and misconceptions. People are inclined to think of the entire continent as a big tragedy, ignoring the fact that there are countries with very distinct context and development status.
The Deficit Orientation
This reminded me of the Participatory Research course I took last semester where we talked about the concept of “Deficit Orientation”, which refers to when individuals, usually members of dominant groups, consider people from various groups (e.g., cultural, social, or communal) as lacking in certain knowledge, skills, or value. (Ravitch & Riggan, 2012) In other words, when thinking of a group of people in a particular context, with deficit orientation, we tend to see what the community are lack of, the inferiority, instead of what they are competent of, which is the strength. The deficit orientation orients the local communities and us. The images the aid workers create underlying their work can further strengthen this deficit point of view which further places African countries in a forever dependent situation and are not able to own their development responsibilities and progress.
Leslie Dodson once spoke on TED (https://www.ted.com/talks/leslie_dodson_don_t_misrepresent_africa): “Real narratives are complicated: Africa isn’t a country, and it’s not a disaster zone” Each of us should take the responsibility of misunderstanding Africa. We, the consumers of the news, the donors, the researchers, the NGO workers, can sometimes promote overgeneralization and misrepresentation.
Ravitch, S. M., & Riggan, M. (2012). Reason & rigor: How conceptual frameworks guide research. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.
Howell, M. (2015). Avoiding a Single Story is Key to Developing the Future of African Leadership. Retrieved August 29, 2016, from http://www.aaionline.org/avoiding-a-single-story-is-key-to-developing-the-future-of-african-leadership/