A Facebook friend posted a disgruntled message today on his wall. It’s a picture of the influential book, The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries Are Failing and What Can Be Done About It. The cover of this book features an arresting image: a black child soldier holding an AK-47. He commented:
“A book on the poorest BILLION people in the world and yet the cover image is a black kid with an AK-47. Because, apparently, nothing sums up poverty like a child soldier”
His comment raises a perfectly valid question: if the subject of the book is the poorest billion people on the planet, what led the author (or, more likely, the book’s publisher) to choose a picture of a black child soldier? Subsequent commenters suggested a child dying of thirst in the Thar desert of Pakistan would have been an equally appropriate cover picture. Actually, the implication went further than this; the Pakistani child would have been more worthy than the black child. It seems than in our modern liberal psyche, African poverty is hogging the limelight; why is an African child shouldering the global poverty of a billion people, while a Pakistani child struggles on, unrecognized?
And herein lies the problem. Are we so used to seeing pictures of African misery, that we feel like other narratives are being excluded? Does the Pakistani child deserve more attention simply because it hasn’t received the same mass publicity that African child soldiers have? Has it really come to this: are we bored of poverty in Africa?
I am not for a second suggesting that my friend was detracting from the experiences of the African child soldier, or their worthiness for help and support. But I’m certain the same comment would not have been made if the Pakistani child had made the front cover of The Bottom Billion. What’s interesting isn’t that either the original author of the post, nor the subsequent commenters, would view suffering in either Africa or Pakistan as inherently more worthy than the other, but that the use of images of African suffering has become infuriating in itself, as if its mere appearance suggests that the suffers are more worthy than the world’s other poor. African suffering has become such a cliché that it appears that in the eyes of many it is detracting from the problem of global poverty it is meant to represent. This is a problem I have chosen to dub ‘African poverty fatigue’.
There’s no doubt that the public in the developed world are experiencing ‘African poverty fatigue’. In 2005, even lifelong white-saviour Bob Geldof announced he was “profoundly bored with Africa” because of its slow pace of change, as if twenty years of charity work should have been enough to solve some of the world’s most deeply entrenched political problems. For charity fundraising and marketing professionals, this problem has becoming increasingly apparent. After years of being bombarded with images of starving children and squalid slum conditions, these images don’t have the shocking impact they once did. Worse still, as these images lose their impact, the public are beginning to wonder whether all the money they plough into development organisations and charities has made one blind bit of difference. Is this why my Facebook commenters feel disgruntled about the cover of The Bottom Billion, like African child soldiers suddenly have a monopoly on the world’s billion worst off?
Undoubtedly, images of poverty have become a cliché that is damaging to the reputation of Africa as a tourist destination, a center for investment, as the punchline of offensive jokes. Ask people to tell you the things they associate with Africa, and you’re sure to get a list of mostly negatives. It’s pleasing to me that organisations like Oxfam have launched ad campaigns that highlight African poverty while placing it against a backdrop of positive aspects of the continent that present a more nuanced picture. Likewise, charity fundraisers have realised that people are more likely to donate if appeals for funds show not just the misery that could be alleviated but also past beneficiaries and success stories that show change really can happen. This is not without its problems, of course (could a thirty second charity advert ever really not be guilty of oversimplification?), but it does go some way to combatting ‘African poverty fatigue’ expressed by the critics of The Bottom Billion’s cover.
I don’t agree with all its arguments, but The Bottom Billion is a far more nuanced book than its simplistic cover gives it credit for. Nevertheless, any book that represents a call to action in the fight against poverty is worth reading. If a cover of a graph showing poverty in perspective might have dissuaded readers from picking it up, then I’m glad the publishers chose a single individual as the representative of a global problem. After all, you can’t put a billion people on the cover of a book. All this is underlined by a simply reality backed up by research; people are far more likely to donate (or in this case buy a book) if faced with an individual who represents the cause, rather than by an explanation of the broader problem. Tell people about the scale of children in conflict and they feel overwhelmed, like their donation will make little difference. Show them the child soldier their money could provide for, and suddenly it all seems worth it.
It was always going to be difficult choosing an image to portray the experiences of a billion people. And it’s certainly legitimate to question why we focus our attention so relentlessly on African suffering in the popular consciousness, while other crises that deserve equal attention barely get a look in. But we must be careful that in our effort to draw attention to these unseen crises, we do not at the same time undermine the legitimacy of suffering in Africa, simply because we feel like it’s been shown before. After all, while the basic knowledge that suffering in Africa exists is virtually universal knowledge, Africa remains a huge source of ignorance to vast swathes of the world. Books like The Bottom Billion might lure us in with an oversimplified cover image, but the contents they contain is anything but.
Above all remember, if we’re experiencing ‘African poverty fatigue’, just imagine how Africans feel.