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Pushing the hippo out of the frame…

Gal Beckerman of the Columbia Journalism Review takes a swing at Vanity Fair’s Africa issue, alongside dozens of African and Afrophile bloggers, including yours truly. I found Beckerman’s framing of the issue very useful. Borrowing from Andrew Rice in The Nation, she observes that there are two primary ways in which discussions of African aid are usually presented: “the ‘governance-first’ camp ‘holds that Africans are impoverished because their rulers keep them that way,’ and the ‘poverty-first’ camp ‘believes African governments are so lousy precisely because their countries are so poor.'”

She goes on to suggest that the governance-first argument receives little attention in Western media – it comes out mostly in “angry and often cruelly written op-eds by one-time Peace Corps volunteer and travel writer Paul Theroux”. The emphasis instead is on the poverty-first camp, led by Bono and Jeffrey Sachs, which focuses on raising the consciousness of Western leaders and appealing on them to act on behalf of the continent. This can be a dangerous stance: “It’s a precarious role, one that can easily tip over into a paternalistic and condescending tone that’s not that far away from the worldview of colonial powers who saw themselves as engaged in a civilizing mission.”

I think Beckerman’s frame is a bit too narrow – specifically, it doesn’t address the dominant narrative we heard at TED Global: the idea that responsibility for Africa’s future rests firmly on the shoulders of individual African entrepreneurs, thinkers, writers and leaders. Both frames she and Rice offer leave individual Africans helpless – the problems are either the result of Western indifference or the incompetence of unaccountable leaders. In neither case can an individual hope to make a change – she or he is victim to forces beyond control.

It’s not Beckerman or Rice’s fault – these are, in fact, the dominant narratives over aid in Africa. But it opens the question of how to get this third narrative – the transformation of Africa will come from the entrepreneurial efforts, non-profit and for-profit, of Africans at home and abroad – into mainstream discussions of the continent. This perspective was thoroughly represented at TED Global in Arusha – quite possibly overrepresented – and yet it wasn’t well amplified in mainstream media coverage of the event. The Economist wrote a short piece on the event, but the author seemed troubled that there weren’t very many “hard-knuckle African politicians who often run the interior or defence ministry or act as kingmakers, sometimes bankrolling rotten presidents” at the event. That’s true, and it was a conscious decision of the organizers. As Hash of White African puts it, the Economist appears to be complaining “But, where were the Hippos?!“. He notes:

My question is why was this person from the Economist so fixated on there not being enough hippos? Is it because that’s the only way he sees things getting done in Africa? If he believes that is so, then he’s missing the bigger picture. The message at TED was that regardless of the hippos, the cheetahs will find a way to make change happen.

The story wasn’t that there weren’t any hippos at TED, it’s that they are becoming irrelevant.

I think Hash is optimistic – we’re a long way away from Hippo obscolenence, but I agree that’s the path we’re starting to follow. One of the challenges is to bring this Cheetah narrative into mainstream usage, so that we’re seeing stories framed in those terms, either embracing or challenging that concept, but not ignoring it.

TED organizer Chris Anderson responded to Hash’s post, characterizing the Economist piece as, “A lumbering, clumsy, hippo-like piece which completely missed the real story of TEDGlobal. Thank goodness for the blogosphere.” Indeed. And thanks to Chris for making sure so many bloggers were there document another narrative – it’s an object lesson for other conference organizers, especially those trying to engineer paradigm shifts…

6 thoughts on “Pushing the hippo out of the frame…”

  1. First of all, I am so glad I was linked to your blog as I find it an invaluable source of information and thought-provoking ideas. My question for you is, how do all those that believe their is more to the story than Bono and Angelina get the word out into the mainstream? Thoughtful blogs or news pieces in relatively small magazines do a good job at drawing out the debate and putting meat out for people to chew. But unfortunately that doesn’t get the attention of people who only know about these issues from MTV or Vanity Fair. And how do we begin a more thoughtful conversation without completely antagonizing those that actually draw attention to these issues in the first place?

  2. Anne, the question you’re asking is a huge one – the work we do on Global Voices (globalvoicesonline.org) is one response to the question. We’re trying to amplify stories like that of William Kamkwamba in a way that makes those stories accessible to media companies, in the hopes that they’ll help us amplify them. My guess is that the answer isn’t to cut Bono and Vanity Fair out of the picture – it’s to ask them to do better. The reason you’re hearing (here and elsewhere) frustration with Bono is that he’s got great opportunities to promote and feature some amazing voices from the continent, and we know he’s hearing these voices. The hope is that he’ll advocate for these less-heard voices when he’s in situations like guest-editing VF or building programming for MTV…

  3. Ethan,

    I am with you entirely with you in your response…in principle. We humans always try to create simple categories to understand issues…you created a third, from the 2 by Gal Beckerman. The truth is always more complicated. We fell into the same trap sometimes at TEDGlobal in the AID vs Trade debate. I was one of the privileged 100 at TEDGlobal as a Fellow….and saw a face of the continent I have hardly ever seen (despite being an avid consumer of all media African). What I did not see in Vanity Fair or in Gal Beckerman’s piece is the positive face of the continent that we heard so much about in Arusha. The more we young Africans identify with this positive image, the more we will strive to defend it and build it. Accentuating the positive is not just an egocentric exercise but a strong motivating force. The only justification I can imagine for VF’s and Bono’s framing of the issues and use of predominantly strange faces to portray our continent is that it presumes its readers too stupid to know the difference! If Ngozi Okonjo Iweala can have such an impact on a discerning audience as in TED, maybe we just have to assume a story like she had to tell would not interest VF readers…..a shame. I bought the issue of VF with a postTED eagerness, and finished reading it with an overwhelming emptiness. Yet I cannot bring myself to criticise Bono…not just yet.


  4. On behalf of hippos everywhere, may I say that you people are being dreadfully unfair to a competent species that is, yes, agile and graceful in its own environment? (Which, of course, is bouncing gently through shallow ponds.) It’s sheer slander to conflate them with a bunch of bloated parasites. You just have to hope they don’t get in touch with any of the lawyers passing through on safaris.

    Seriously though, I haven’t read the VF article because I saw a huge poster of the cover at a local Barnes & Noble. I can’t even identify exactly what it is that’s so offensive. The Cool Kidz-ness of it? The Shrubble’s vacuous mug? The fact that, black or white, they’re almost all from the US? I thought it was supposed to be about Africa.

    I’m not even that close to the issues, and yet that cover sets my teeth on edge and makes me want to rampage around, tearing up magazines.

  5. Hi all, this deals with journalism and one must know one of their main aim: to sell their newspaper and reach the largest audience.
    This is pretty different with blogs. And the way Africa is seen might change thanks to blog, thanks to new media, like the one Salim Amin is trying to start with the pan-African News-Channel A24.
    And the cheetah will need to be supported by experienced businessmen and by a rising Venture Capital.

  6. Pingback: Szavanna_blog | The cheetah and the hippo - I am because I am or I am because we are

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