The framing of ‘Africa’


Campaigns such as Live Aid, Make Poverty History etc provide help to those in need, debating the help given is not the objective of this blog post. The focus is on the framing of the situation in ‘Africa’, how the past ideologies influence the present and whether it is ethical or not for campaigns to use this sort of framing.

Discourse, narrative and ‘Africa’

The title of this blog post is quite ironic and in a way, part of the problem – the crude simplification and generalisaion of the term ‘Africa’. What comes to mind when you think of Africa? A common image of ‘Africa’ in western media is often one that portrays poverty, death and famine. Why might these images come to mind? Well, it’s a very dominant narrative that is part of the historic western portrayal of ‘Africa’ as the ‘dark continent’ full of ‘savagery’ and constant war. This kind of imagery has been argued to be part of imperialist ideology, in which knowledge was produced and circulated to reinforced the concept of non Europeans as uncivilized, justifying the ruling and controlling inflicted upon them. In Edward Said’s Orientalism, he sees this kind of discourse as part of strategies of power and subjection, inclusion and exclusion, the voiced and the silenced. Through this type of post colonialist theory, humanitarianism applied to ‘Africa’, points insistently toward imperialism by creating an image of people who are incapable of helping themselves (Austen and Smith, 1969). These historic concepts partly responsible for the image of ‘Africans’ as Victims, as those who cannot represent themselves and must be represented by others (Said, 1978).

So why is there this particular frame of ‘Africa’? (what is ‘Africa?’)

Frames or framing is a way in which a chosen problem is presented and the ‘norms, habits, and expectancies of the decision maker’ that operate in conditions of bounded rationality (Kahneman and Tversky 1986:257). Framing for a campaigner is a process by which the aims of a campaign are linked with individual interests, values, and beliefs. Linking this back to post-colonial theory, and this image of the ‘Africa’ as the ‘dark continent’ is part of a  dominant discourse that has played a part in shaping our beliefs and preconceptions of Africa. Therefore this discourse plays a role in influencing the construction of a frame, as ‘effective frames accord with familiar stories and belief systems’ (Gamson 1988). Practically everyone has a preconceived notion of ‘Africa’, despite the fact that most of us have never have been there to experience it. Our preconceptions come from an historical discourse of neo-colonial beliefs that influence the way that social change campaigns have framed ‘Africa’. Philo would argue that perhaps it is the absence of other explanation in the media that causes audiences to fill in the gaps with these preconceived neo-colonial beliefs about ‘Africa’ and lays the blame on Africans themselves (Philo 2002, pp. 185–6).

Example of the dilemma of using popular frames:Make Poverty History campaign: “on one hand the Make Poverty History actors didn’t want to enforce negative images that would bolster collective beliefs about Africa as a place of poverty and despair. On the other hand, they realised that these were images the public understood and hence may have been the most effective way of getting a message across”. (Sireau, 2009 p117)

What kind of frames have been used?

Frames exist in 3 types

Diagnostic: framing of what the problem or situation is and who is the target to blame.

  • problems: famine, starvation and disease.
  • civil war, racial and religious tensions and oppressive political regimes are seen as being the fault of the countries and their people, who are not anymore the helpless victims.
  • Corruption, the inability of poor countries to pull themselves out of poverty because of rampant corruption
  • Trade agreements/ economics/debt.

Prognostic: what can be done to achieve change:

  • donations to for materials such as food, medicine, (band aid effect)
  • awareness of diseases, prevention.
  • lobbying for better trade agreements
  • grassroots organsiations.

Motivational/action: what can be done to convince individuals to take action/mobilise

  • identification with the issue
  • raise awareness
  • feel change can be achieve.

Negative effects of limited Diagnostic framing :

Portraying a stereotyped representation of the causes and consequences of poverty in developing regions such as ‘Africa’, can lead to a sense of hopelessness about what actions can make a difference. A 2005 poverty study about people perceptions found that when people thought of  ‘third world’, they connected this term with images of ‘Africa’ created by campaigns such as Live Aid. The results showed that parts of the audience felt that these countries are in a ‘permanent state of poverty’, leading the audience to disconnect into those who think that these problems can and will never be solved (Fenyoe and Fowler 2005). This type of diagnostic frame can effect the motivational/action part of framing as it can damage the audience’s ability to feel that they can contribute to change, therefore diminishing their motivation to act.

Perhaps a more ethical frame for campaigners to use, would be more complex messages that explain the structural causes of poverty. A different and more complex frame has the potential to change people’s beliefs about poverty more so than a simple one promoted in marketing campaigns.

Modern campaigning for Africa should be about abolishing the stereotypes of ‘Africans’ and improving our understanding of world poverty. Part of this is giving people from different countries in Africa (47 countries) a voice, there is not one ‘Africa’ and one ‘African’ problem, but rather many different complex problems which effect countries in different ways. And who understands the solutions better then people from African countries.

“They are active, vibrant, living people. And I’d really like more positive images than white people talking about black people dying. (Allen, interview, 15.04.05)”

Here is a trailer for the documentary called ‘framed’ which is all about people from different nations in Africa, framing themselves:


One thought on “The framing of ‘Africa’

  1. This is such an important issue and one that really irritates me. I really can’t believe that in 2014 they released another song asking “Do they know it’s Christmas?”. We’re still perpetuating the same tired old stereotypes, and it might be useful in raising some money today, but it’s not helping us take any steps forward for tomorrow.

    You mention the ‘imperialist ideology’ that frames Africans in a certain way. This is an excellent point that is not enough part of the common discourse. There seems to be a framing that makes the situation in ‘Africa’ seem like it just happened, without an instigator. The truth is, as we know, that colonisation, resource plundering and slavery took an unimaginable toll on the continent. What’s more, African human and natural resources are what helped industrialise Europe and spread European empires.

    I wonder if we framed it more in this way, as people in the West taking more responsibility for how their countries ravaged Africa, whether we would be more or less likely to start rectifying the problem. I think people will be unlikely to want to accept this frame, because of the huge burden of guilt and responsibility it places on the West, but we know how important framing is and perhaps this radical change of framing is necessary to start properly addressing the issues at hand.


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