Would you believe me if I told you that writing a positive story about Africa would be bad for a newspaper's readership stats? Would it sound more believable if you heard it from a columnist at the New York Times?
It’s already very difficult to get readers interested in Africa (whenever I write about Africa, my column readership plunges), and a good news column not tied to a crisis (“Benin Thrives!”) would frankly have zero readership. (Nicholas D Kristof, NYT, 1 July 2011) ...
The upshot is that I fear we sometimes create a public perception of Africa as a basket case, in a way that discourages tourism and business investment. If that’s the case, then our efforts to help Africa only hurt it.
That’s the kind of Africa story you normally hear — a dash of guns and chaos — and it’s real, but also incomplete. As my win-a-trip winners found on this journey, the poverty is heartbreaking and the insecurity ominous. But the giraffes and villagers alike are hugely welcoming, and the progress is now effervescent.
I suspect that there are plenty of people who are perfectly happy with stories like this. Kristof claims his readers really aren't interested and I'd be tempted too to suggest that many NGOs would actually suffer if newspapers started writing good news stories. When CARE International took Bill Bryson to Kenya last year, I'm sure they didn't waste time taking him to luxury lodges; that wasn't the story they were interested in him telling. Aid budgets are shrinking and Governments are under pressure to spend money domestically rather than abroad. Likewise, there are plenty of governments in Africa that are counting on their aid budgets to get them through the next fiscal year.
So how then do we answer Kristof's question, how should we cover Africa? I believe the answer lies in complicating rather than simplifying the story. The answer, especially for newspapers like the NYT is to explain the complexities of the issues, to take their readers by the hand and bring them into the heart of the story. Here's three examples.
Let's start with the easy stuff. Africa is a continent, not a country. Africa consists of 54 sovereign states and six different simple regions to choose from - North Africa, Southern Africa, West Africa, East Africa, Central Africa or sub-Saharan Africa. If you want to narrow it down even further you could throw in some regional groupings like SADC or ECOWAS countries.
Kristof's article then, instead of referring to Africa, throughout, could narrow down to West Africa. This would put his four countries in a very specific geographic context. If you want you could even put it in an American context - use Ghana as a reference point, use President Obama's 2009 visit to Ghana as a reference point, use Michelle Obama's visit to South Africa (a long way away) as a reference point. In one line give people a way to understand where these countries really are.
Why Are We There?
I wonder what would happen if there was a shift in writing about Africa from 'giving' to 'investing'. Instead of giving money to Africa for humanitarian reasons, let's call a spade and spade and admit that foreign governments are investing. Let's be honest and acknowledge that aid is tied to trade, aid is tied to long term economic imperatives. Some of those are embarrassingly commercial - like wanting access for mining companies, others have direct social implications. For example, investing in another country's health system has global implications: SARS demonstrated clearly the reach of a health epidemic in one country. I'm sure the NYT's readership could cope with that or cope with a concept like the fact that fighting poverty is a way to combat terrorism. I'm guessing if it was explained clearly they could be made to care about combating terrorism by feeding people rather than killing them.
People don't care about stories because they're bored and because they can't clearly answer the question 'what's in it for me?' The answer to that question is - a hell of a lot - and it's up to papers like the NYT to explain that.
Why do people behave the way they do?
Kristof describes a 'tumult' in a fish market that arises over a camera. He puts the event forward as an example of a 'melee' in Mauritania, a nice example of unruly people in a wretched country. He says he doesn't know why the event occurred.
I'm afraid I don't buy the 'fluke' explanation. Perhaps if he had taken the time to ask people who spoke the language what had happened, he might have got a sense of the nuance of the situation. (Perhaps he did but he didn't get a good answer and he didn't pursue it.) I've seen such things happen to Nyani; people who object to a camera or a photograph. But there is always a reason, it may be cultural, it may be historical, it may be emotional, it may be personal, but there is always a reason.
NYT readers should be able to cope with reasons, because the more reasons we learn, the more we understand. The more we know the more we begin to understand that people in 'Africa' like their privacy, or they want to tell their stories, they want to earn a living, they want to put food on their tables, they want their children to grow up and have good lives, they want somewhere safe and clean and dry to live. They want to have fun, they want to laugh, they want to spend time with their families and celebrate.
If Kristof's readers don't read when he writes about Africa, is that the fault of the subject matter or the presentation? I have a readership that has tripled in the last six months, and the bulk of it is coming from the US. Sure my readership for five years probably doesn't come close to what the NYT gets in a day, but my stats would suggest that there are plenty of people in the US who are interested in what's happening in Africa. From what I can tell from the Ghana blogging community there are plenty of people in the US reading their blogs too. And maybe he should also stop by Global Voices and see if anyone's reading about Africa over there.
Maybe people are just tired of hearing the same old story over and over again. Maybe Africa's not the problem, it's just time to start telling a different story.