African poverty is all the NGOs’ fault – or is it the journalists’?

March 21st, 2011

The Columbia Journalism Review is not the place that one normally looks for incisive comment on aid, development and emergencies, but there’s an interesting article published online that casts some light into the slightly murky world of the way that things get reported – or, in some cases, don’t get reported.

Author Karen Rothmyer comes with considerable credibility as she is a former managing editor of The Nation, was a Peace Corps teacher in Kenya in the 1960s and has lived in Kenya full-time since 2007.  So she has seen the NGO/journalist interface from both sides.

And what she points out is that there are a number of pernicious vested interests at work here that militate against accurate and dispassionate reporting.  What then happens is that that reporting affects both policy and funding decisions.

One of the pernicious vested interests is the need for NGOs to stay in business.  Sadly, many of them have become permanent institutions with heavy fixed costs and a machine that needs to be fed money in order to keep going.  Much of this money comes from grants and donations and so, the argument goes, the ‘need’ for the NGO’s services has to be kept top-of-mind for donors – maybe, in extreme cases, exaggerated – so that the money fountain keeps on running.

Rothmyer quotes (approvingly) Linda Polman from her book, ‘The Crisis Caravan’, in which she says that, “Aid organizations are businesses dressed up like Mother Teresa, but that’s not how reporters see them”.

The other pernicious vested interest is the need for media organisations to get ‘sexy’ stories and to deliver them at as low a cost as possible.  This was always true, but is especially the case since the financial crisis, the collapse of advertising revenues and the ensuing pressure on costs.

So a happy, if distinctly unhelpful, synergy develops between the aid agencies who need to get a striking story over of poverty, disease, famine, decay (you get the picture) and journalists who need something with a catching photo or film clip to go on the front page or to lead the evening news.

And in all of this, what Rothmyer sees as the truth gets thoroughly buried as it is, indeed, an inconvenient truth.

Rothmyer’s ‘truth’ is that things are actually getting better in Africa; child mortality rates are dropping according to The Lancet; poverty rates are falling according to the National Bureau of Economic Research; and Africa is amongst the world’s most rapidly growing economic regions according to McKinsey Quarterly.  But these, she says, are not the stories that get published.

There’s a quick riposte to all of these points: child mortality in sub-Saharan Africa is still the worst in the world; Africa in general and sub-Saharan Africa in particular is still the poorest region in the world; and whilst it may be growing economically, that growth comes from such a low base that impressive percentage gains can be shown without them having a lot of real impact, especially on the per capita figures, as populations grow faster than economies.

But, that said, she has done a useful service in showing how what we see on our TV screens and read in our newspapers is not as impartial as we might like to think.

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