How Journalists and the Public Get It Wrong About African Poverty

REPOST: This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Ordinary people’s stories can change the world’s views about Africa

We cannot see salary data in the faces of others, but most of us have similar mental images that structure how we think about poverty in Africa. Search Google Images for ‘African poverty’ to see how yours match up. Dilapidated housing. Tattered shirts. Blank stares. Bellies protruding from parasitic infections. Skin clinging to bones from starvation. Tears.

The visit to South Africa by French economist and author of Capital in the 21st Century, Thomas Piketty, should lead us to reflect on how we understand poverty.

To speak of poverty in monetary values, such as living on US$1 or US$2 a day, is to view it as an absolute concept. To approach poverty as a relative concept is to recognise that poverty is contextual – US$1 a day in London is not the same as US$1 a day in the South African township, Diepsloot – and relational, shaped by the expectation gap between the those deemed impoverished and those writing the definitions.

For decades, scholars have criticised media representations of African poverty. Disease, disaster, conflict and poverty have long been hallmarks of global media coverage of Africa and, therefore, have coloured how the rest of the world views the continent.

While more nuanced coverage exists within Africa itself, poverty is still a topic defined by difference. The poor are different from the rest of the public. The poor are different from the journalists who cover poverty. The poor are different from us.

But media coverage of poverty does not reflect how the poor see themselves. There is a gulf between mediated poverty and the lived experience of poverty. So how have journalists and the public gotten it so wrong about African poverty?

Tales of doom and gloom

Members of the press have always struggled to tell the stories of those who do not look, sound, or live like them. While it is easy to blame individual journalists, there are structural explanations for this problem.

Journalists would love to function on an anthropologist’s time table, spending years getting to know the communities they discuss. Instead, most journalists must quickly file stories on deadline while chasing their latest editorial assignment. The daily news cycle does not leave much room for reporters to challenge preconceived notions and question personal biases.

In stories about poverty, journalists typically rely on local nongovernmental organisations to provide local sources and basic information. Resource-strapped nongovernmental organisations are pleased to oblige because any outside attention offers the potential for increased funding and support.

Though most nongovernmental organisations are hard working and well meaning, the nonprofit industry incentivises organisations to continue spreading tales of gloom and doom about African poverty. Donors respond to stories about extreme needs and the good work being done to address those needs. Stories which emphasise community features that locals value are not great avenues for fund raising.

Poor residents also recognise that they can benefit personally from magnifying their struggles when speaking with reporters. In Kenya, for example, journalists regularly compensate slum residents for interviews. The more tragic the tale, the easier it is to play upon the reporter’s sympathies.

That said, we should not criticise the poor for benefiting from their struggles. Interviewees offer value to journalists and news agencies, who turn around and sell their stories to the public. Considering high unemployment rates throughout the continent, being interviewed can serve as a profitable source of income.

Another worrisome trend in poverty coverage is the first-person travel narrative, in which journalists claim to understand poverty by experiencing it for themselves. In these stories, journalists embody pseudo-anthropologists, sharing their newfound experiential knowledge with the public after spending only a few days in poor communities.

The BBC has invested heavily in first-person travel narratives, first with Famous, Rich, and in the Slums, then later with Slum Survivors and Reggie Yates Extreme South Africa.

Though first-person travel narratives reflect the reporter’s experience, these stories fail to question the privilege of the storyteller. Such reporters see themselves as a bridge between the audience and the impoverished, but their stories overshadow the voices of those who understand poverty through living it every day.

Celebrating common humanity

During my research in Kibera, a densely-populated low-income community in Nairobi, residents criticised the gap between how they experienced life and how the media covered their community.

Residents were deeply concerned about insecure employment, disease, and other hardships unfamiliar to those living outside of poverty. But they also voiced great frustration that the media only reported negative stories about their community. Kibera’s media narrative did not capture the fullness of day-to-day life as they experienced it.

Residents told me stories that were complex and contextual, where the homes were of substandard quality but the cost of living suited their lifestyles. They spoke about the vibrant community in Kibera and the kinship they felt with their neighbours while dismissing the isolated nature of Nairobi’s wealthier neighbourhoods. They presented stories in which poverty constrained but did not define their lives.

Journalists who cover poverty would be wise to remember these lessons. They should view their interactions with nongovernmental organisations and local residents with healthy scepticism. They should acknowledge their biases and restrain themselves from projecting unwarranted expertise.

Journalists also should find out what works in poor communities as well as what doesn’t work. They should look beyond the familiar images of dirt, disease, and despair to seek out the mundane. Not to diminish poverty, but to celebrate our common humanity.


New Article: Touring Slums and Telling Stories (About Ourselves)

Five years ago, when wrapping up fieldwork in Kibera, I blogged about the controversy surrounding slum tourism. While many Kibera residents resent the fact that so many foreigners tour their community, a few told me they believed there would be less misunderstanding if more outsiders visited Kibera.

In a previous article, I discussed the complex feelings residents have about their home community and, in doing so, tried to challenge the dominant discourse about slums. In a new article, titled “Ironic Encounters: Posthumanitarian Storytelling in Slum Tourist Media,” David Tuwei and I look at the stories slum tourists are telling about their encounters with global poverty.

The article examines three texts produced by tourists of Kibera: the BBC special Famous, Rich and in the Slums, the book Megaslumming: A Journey Through Sub-Saharan Africa’s Largest Shantytown, and a White House slideshow about Jill Biden’s tour of Kibera. We draw from Lilie Chouliaraki’s The Ironic Spectator and H. Leslie Steeves’ article about representations of Africa in U.S. reality television to argue that slum tourist media exemplify a narrative genre in the post-humanitarian era, which we call “ironic encounters.”

Structurally, an ironic encounter is one in which:

  1. A Global North traveler visits a place of perceived suffering in the Global South
  2. The account is told through the visitor’s voice using narration and/or confessional interviews
  3. The story is structured chronologically around the visitor’s trip

More important, ironic encounters make three normative claims that are consistent with Chouliaraki’s account of post-humanitarianism:

  1. They position experiential knowledge as better than detached learning about global inequality
  2. They present tourists as more knowledgeable about the conditions and consequences of global poverty than those who live it daily
  3. They depict the visitor’s journey as a source of encouragement and enlightenment for those being toured

The article is a part of an upcoming special issue of Communication, Culture & Critique edited by Steeves on the topic of “Africa, Media and Globalization.” The abstract is below:

We argue that slum tourist media exemplify a distinct and growing narrative genre about post-humanitarian travel: ironic encounters. In ironic encounters, Global North tourists construct a humanitarian Self through their first-hand engagement with suffering in the Global South. In these stories, tourists present their travels as essential for coveted experiential knowledge while depicting locals as the true beneficiaries of the tourists’ self-discovery. We examine three high-profile texts produced by visitors of Kibera, a densely populated low-income community in Nairobi, Kenya: the BBC special Famous, Rich and in the Slums, the book Megaslumming, and a White House slideshow about Jill Biden’s tour of Kibera. Emblematic of ironic encounters, these texts ultimately justify slum tourism as a humanitarian act.

Playing the Numbers Game to Discredit the Numbers Game

Rasna Warah has an opinion piece in today’s Daily Nation on the new census figures for Kibera–something I blogged about last week. A regular critic of development projects, Warah argues the inflated population figures traditionally given for Kibera most likely were created and promoted by the UN and other NGOs to serve their own interests. She writes:

The more likely scenario is that, in the absence of authoritative statistics, the population figure for Kibera was entirely made up to suit the interests of particular groups. And because no one publicly challenged the figures, a lie became the truth.

Seems reasonable. I mostly agree.

But, Warah does something that I forgot to mention in my earlier critique of the discussion surrounding the new census figures. With all this effort to get the numbers right when it comes to Kibera, I see the beginnings of a new numbers myth forming…

Warah cites the original article to note that “there are between 6,000 and 15,000 NGOs working in Kibera alone.” The passage she is referring to is from here:

According to Mr. Tom Aosa, the leader of Community Based Organisations, there are between 6,000 and 15,000 community-based organisations working in Kibera. That is one charitable organisation for every 15 residents of Kibera. Throw in an estimated 2,000 governmental organisations, and you get a rough idea exactly how the billions of shillings pumped into “the biggest slum in the world” are spent.

Tom Aosa is the chairman of National Council of Community-Based Organizations, which serves as an umbrella group for CBOs in Kenya. From their website, it’s unclear to me if NCCBO is officially a part of the Kenyan government, but a few news articles refer to them as a civil society organization.

What I find troubling is that Aosa provides no evidence to support his claim that between 6,000 and 15,000 CBOs exist in Kibera. NCCBO’s website states they have a total of 15,000 CBO members spread across 59 constituencies in Kenya. So either Aosa is making a calculated projection based on the percentage of member groups in relation to non-member groups, or he is making a broad projection based on mostly guesswork (considering his estimated range from 6,000 to 15,000 is so large, I would bet on this).

The only other estimation I’ve seen about the number of organizations in Kibera is from Christine Bodewes’ book Parish Transformation in Urban Slums: Voices of Kibera, Kenya. Here, Bodewes says there over 700 NGOs in Kibera. While it’s been 5 years since her book was published in 2005, there’s still quite a discrepancy between 700 and 6,000, let alone 15,000.

Also, I want to point out the slippage between Aosa’s estimation of CBOs to Warah’s statement about NGOs (and admittedly my use of Bodewes’s numbers of NGOs). CBOs and NGOs are not the same thing. Even if Aosa’s numbers are accurate, no one should think there are 15,000 Save the Chldrens or Amnesty Internationals in Kibera. I’ve know several CBOs that are just a few Kibera residents coming together to focus on something they care about. I know one CBO that is a handful of youth who want to start their own video production company. It’s also common for a CBO to be a group of mothers doing a merry-go-round, which is mostly people saving money and sharing their own resources, no matter how small.

In my opinion, these numbers about NGOs and CBOs in Kibera are just as suspect as the old population figures of Kibera. So let’s be careful before those numbers become the accepted talking point. Otherwise, we’ve just gone from overestimating the population of Kibera to overestimating the response.

Megaslumming Book Launch/Panel Discussion

A few days ago I attended the launch party for Megaslumming: A Journey Through Sub-Saharan Africa’s Largest Shantytown by Adam W. Parsons (you can download a free PDF of the book here). The author spent some time in Kibera as part of a larger book project on the world’s largest slums but ended up focusing this manuscript specifically on his time in Kibera. He’s now a part of a new UK-based NGO called Share the World’s Resources, which sponsored the book launch/panel. I just started reading, so I can’t really say much about the book itself, but the panel and ensuring discussion were pretty interesting.

The panel discussion included the following:

  • Rajesh Makwana, director of Share the World’s Resources
  • Adam Parsons, author of Megaslumming
  • Rasna Warah, a Daily Nation columnist and social commentator
  • Arthur Waweru, a Kibera resident who I know from his work with Hot Sun
  • Djemba (sorry, I didn’t get his full name), a Kibera resident and one of the main sources in Parson’s book

Overall, I found the first three speakers a little dry and dispassionate, something Arthur took care of by speaking in a very frank (if not hyperbolic) manner.

The Q&A is where things got really lively. You can tell people have strong opinions anytime it comes to discussing slums. There were those that think the government is to blame, those that think blaming the government takes the focus away from individual responsibility, those that think donor/sponsors do more harm than good, and those that think slum residents need a helping hand because pulling at their bootstraps isn’t doing much good.

In the end, there are no easy answers. Kibera is a fascinating and incredibly complex place, and there is so much variance between and within each of Nairobi’s slums (let alone the world’s slums). I’m just starting to get a sense of how they work, I’m not bold enough to assume I know how to make them safer and more secure places for their residents.