A few years ago, I hosted a team of global humanitarian donors to see first-hand the impact of drought on affected communities in East Africa. We could not proceed with the assessment because of flooding. The rains had finally arrived after months of drought that devastated livelihoods, but we were very worried because donors would not see `acute’ signs of drought on the ground to justify more funding. Having spent the year sounding the alarm on the `scale of malnutrition’, it was `distressful’ too to see happy chubby kids running beside the convoy and waving happily. One of the donors came back from the mission worried that he would not be able to drum up funding for my office because he could not get the right pictures. ‘Not even one picture of a dead livestock’ he cried on our drive back to the airport.
The same was the case a year later as we planned another assessment for donors. We were more concerned about choosing locations where it would not rain. The East African country needed rain after two years of back to back drought, but our focus was not to look at best ways to harness the rains to address drought. We were more focused on how to ensure our agenda, our presence, our action was supported; we were focused on how to ensure the “reality” fit the narrative we propagated.
Part of the mandate and objective of international humanitarian coordination system in any country is to draw media and international attention to a crisis and to do so in ways to raise funds for the international response. The worst case scenario is what is often communicated and publicized in public awareness activities. The danger in this strategy is that the worst case scenario is what people take away as the norm. In most cases, the worst case scenario does not happen, but the message communicated in the media outreach activities stays with the public for many years to come.
Today we live in a worrying world where the only time Africa is relevant is through its humanitarian appeals and humanitarian challenges. To expand, many African scholars have bemoaned the fact that Africa only makes the news through negative events. I am taking this analysis further: today, Africa makes it to the international media mainly through charity aid appeals. Humanitarian actors lobby and promote humanitarian crisis news to the media to aid fundraising for humanitarian actions.
Since the mid-1980s, academic institutions and staff of international NGOs have brought forth compelling researches and cases to argue that international development aid and western designed relief efforts have failed to enable, support or sustain the economic well-being of Africa. Some of these studies have gone as far as proving that the economies of countries in Africa have deteriorated in correlation with the length and volume of aid programs and projects.
From John Graham’s “Lords of Poverty’, published in 1989 which was one of the first damning reports on the negative impact of aid, to Dambisa Moyo’s `Deadly Aid’ published 25 years later which declares a `no aid’ approach for Africa, the message has been consistent; aid has not worked for Africa. In the last decade, the critical lens has been turned on humanitarian aid. Most recently, the world is still reeling from the outpour of support and endorsement from Africa’s youth following Ghana’s President video message on aid and its lack of sustainable solutions for Africa. https://youtu.be/NuLsjsyT93M
In spite of these arguments, international humanitarian requirement is growing every year with the 2018 appeal the largest in history. So why has international humanitarian agenda remained and even expanded amidst these call for change?
International humanitarian assistance systems have been set up to be readily deployed in time of crises/disasters. That the international community through the leadership of the UN have set up such systems to ensure that disaster-affected people do not suffer while waiting for the mobilization of assistance is a gift to the world. But in the perfection of this system lies its danger. This very system has become a beast that needs to, and has to be fed and Africa seems to provide a ready source of nourishment i.e images, stories, situation reports to feed the charity aid industry.
Many have argued that humanitarian aid has become an economic activity and as such, is subject to the traits and characteristics of the market. The amplification of Africa’s crisis to the exclusion of the social and economic growth in the continent by and in the west is a deliberate marketing strategy to generate charitable donations. When a humanitarian system is not implemented in a country with clear timelines including an exit strategy, it can become a weed that stifles recovery efforts including healthy national-led development and economic growth and self-sufficiency.
When Africans angrily react to the misinformation of the continent by western aid agencies, they are missing the point. Critics of the aid and charity branding of Africa sometimes undermine the quest for profit that drives this marketing. The branding of Africa today supports a highly viable marketing activity. To quietly critique the practice and hope it will stop is undermining the number of institutions that depend on this fund-generating machine.
Many Africans and their allies have become bolder in publicly articulating concerns that the negative image of Africa is deliberately manipulated and driven by the fund-raising agenda of international humanitarian aid and development organizations. Criticisms are also rife against the increasing role and involvement of Western celebrities in enforcing the aid and charity image of Africa. With the wide-spread use of the internet and other innovative multi-media channels, this criticism must have come to the attention of the many Western NGOs that are engaged in creating images to support the charity aid branding of Africa, yet nothing is changing.
For international humanitarian relief and development agencies, it is business as usual as aid and charity agendas continue to drive, direct and define Africa’s presence and image in the international community. The robust fundraising and public relations drive of international NGOs are also subsuming efforts to publicize the economic growth potential and confidence that is striving in many nations in Africa. What is further tragic is that Africa carries the identity as the humanitarian basket case of the world, yet does not receive more aids than the rest of the world; Africa bears the pain without the gain. `Despite the awareness and the pleas—and the impression that much is being done for “Africa”—overall international aid to Africa has consistently fallen during the last decade; most of the G8 promises to help Africa have not been met; unfair international trade rules remain a key issue ... The newspaper columns, the concerts, and the international declarations remain in the realms of rhetoric.’
Rebranding Africa Against Humanitarian Aid Branding; What does it take?
To position Africa in the 21st century as an economic force means challenging the voices that position Africa as only suitable for aid and charity. Peoples and citizens drive the economic future and sustainability of nations. Empowered and self-esteemed citizens are the source of the innovation and entrepreneurship that fuels economic development. Human beings `live within Brands and Branded systems that shape the way they act, think, and are perceived. In other words, the Core Values and essence (the Brand identities) of nations big and small diffuse throughout the native populations that live, reinforce, and spread them – a gigantic, churning circle of Brand building. A nation with a negative brand; a brand of recipients of aid, creates dependent citizens who lack the confidence and self-esteem to become innovative; to build economies.
In a world where a nation’s economic success lies in its competitive advantage in the global economy, international image (perception) and branding rules, drives and directs. Africa must embrace this reality unapologetically and step up for its citizens’ sake. Many nations in Africa are rising to this challenge, but national efforts continue to be subsumed by the regional (Africa) negative image. Just as a nations brand impacts on national products, Africa’s regional brand is impacting on national strategies to build and promote positive brands within the continent.
The action taken by a government and its people in the face of a humanitarian crisis becomes part of the national character and narrative of the country. A humanitarian crisis can be a material, a resource for building and strengthening a national identity and sense of worth, but only if affected people respond to their crises; only when Africa leads and responds to its crises. Africa’s governments and peoples cannot leave the narrative around its humanitarian issues to external factors and forces. International allies must collaborate with African countries in this goal.
We live in a world today where natural and man-made disasters happen, and Africa gets its fair share but not more than the rest of the world. In fact, Africa has received less rapid onset disasters than the rest of the world. There has not been a rapid onset disaster in Africa in the last thirty years. Most, if not all the triggers that have generated an international humanitarian presence in Africa have been slow-onset natural disasters or manmade disasters which means they are predictable and preventable, yet prevention is one of the least funded areas of assistance from the international community.
Lessons for Africa as it charts new ways forward
Last week `The Poor Peoples Campaign’ was launched in the United States in acknowledgment of the need to address growing poverty in the United States. Compared to 1968, 60% more Americans are living below the official poverty line today – a total of 41 million people. This reality does not overshadow the economic strength and well-being of the country. The call for the campaign says ‘If we are to save the soul of this country from the poverty that is killing us, we must act, we must agitate, we must cause some righteous trouble.’ This is a lesson for Africa as it charts new ways forward beyond aid dependency. Most times the change that matters comes through movements, and empowerment of people to address their own issues and not through projects funded by international aid.
Governments and national authorities in Africa are demonstrating impressive leadership in the face of national natural or human-made disasters. To name a few, the Government of Nigeria has been the first line and most robust responder of northeast crisis with over 2 Billion USD in response. The government of Ethiopia has been the first, and highest donor with 400 Million USD for its drought response. In 2014, Sierra Leone was the first responder to Ebola in its territories.
Ethiopia remains one of the fastest growing economies in Africa even if it is dealing with one of the worst El Niño induced droughts in over 30 years. Nigeria remains a Foreign Direct Investment powerhouse, with 200 million people, with riches in natural resources untapped, Nigeria stands to attain its goal of a trillion USD economy by 2030. The world needs to take note that the existence of natural or human-induced disasters in Africa cannot subsume the economic growth and potential of the continent.
Nations facing disasters are recognizing that a natural disaster in one part of the country can exist side by side with a continued commitment to economic aspirations. African countries are recognizing that we do not have to put our economic growth and aspiration on hold when disasters strike. Sadly, this approach does not make sense to western international aid fundraising machines.
 Is Africa Misbranded? by Melissa Davis August 13, 2007 issue
 National Brand Identity & Its Effect On Corporate Brands: The Nation Brand Effect (NBE)