The World Vision message

Issue 

Picture

BY TAMARA PEARSON

A new representation of Africa is emerging — Africa, the innocent, hopeless, starving child with big eyes pleading for our help.

One of the main propagators of this image is World Vision, a Christian relief organisation. After the anti-colonial struggles of the 1950s, '60s and '70s, it's arguable that the image of dark, evil Africa has become unsustainable, and this new, desperate Africa is more suitable to Western liberals. It is certainly useful for World Vision's aims: improving material conditions through donations of sympathy from the relatively wealthier populations of the imperialist countries.

World Vision advertisements for sponsorship, which have proliferated on television, in newspapers and magazines and in mail-outs, have a typical layout. The main text is a story of an individual's poverty and then success after sponsorship. It is accompanied by two pictures: the first of an impoverished, pleading child, and the second is a beautiful child, smiling, well-fed and well-clothed.

The format of World Vision advertisements sends out a strong message. The transition from the first picture: representing Africa's "problems" to the second picture; the "solution" to Africa's problems is simple, requiring "just a dollar per day".

The child depicted in the ads isn't placed in a broader context. Africa's history and the real, deeper causes of poverty are denied or ignored, whilst the Western donor is empowered, a saviour.

In such propaganda, what is not said or shown can be just as powerful, influencing or meaningful as what is. The denial of the transformation of Africa after colonialism, of strong, mass resistance movements within Africa fighting to make its political structures more democratic equates to a total misrepresentation of an entire continent.

In the text/voice overs and pictures, the advertisements focus on physical problems: lack of access to water, food, clothing and medical care. These are real problems, but with the political and historical context missing, it is not communicated that the structures imposed on Africa — the undemocratic governments subservient to Western corporate interests — are what have to change, for any real, lasting difference to occur in the lives of its peoples.

Depicting Africa as the powerless, starving child, who with Western assistance will grow up to be "just like us", is not only incredibly patronising, and disempowering for African people — it is a continuation of the enforced submission that colonialism began.

And so, helpless Africa has a future: the World Vision future. World Vision, sponsored by corporations like by BHP Billiton and Shell (known destroyers of the environment and super-exploiters of African labour), is said to play a "monitoring role" in many African countries. Its proclaimed aim is to provide a "healthy and economically secure environment" and "quality of life" for sponsored children. This means "helping communities set priorities" (they don't know what's good for them?) and helping individuals to "start family and community businesses" and generally, to "develop and profit".

This is the vision Africans are encouraged to aspire to. This is the Western cure for sickly Africa — a cure which proved ever so effective recently in Argentina!

[Tamara Pearson is a member of the socialist youth organisation Resistance.]

From Green Left Weekly, April 24, 2002.

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