03 July 2012

The Circular Debate Over Africa's Story

A weekend column by New York Times OpEd writer Nick Kristof on the rise of Africa lead to a brief, yet interesting discussion on what stories should be told more often about Africa. On Monday morning, TMS Ruge called out Kristof for telling the same story that has been told for the past five years (see transcript below).

Kristof tweeted back that he had written about the rise of Africa back in 1997. Ruge commended Kristof for the column, but pushed him on the issue of not continuing to write such stories in the 17 years since. "Then you should have continued to write about it that way, no? Your previous pieces have been about woa (sic) is Africa sob stories," wrote Ruge.

Kristof explained that it has been a tough decision, but the regions where he believes the most is at stake and stories are not being told enough saying, "I'm torn on that. I periodically do Africa rising columns, but the priority has been Sudan, Congo, Sahel where lives at stake."

Ruge continued to push urging Kristof that he should tell more stories about the continent and not just focus on the regions embroiled in conflict. The experiences of people in emerging cities such as Nairobi and Kigali are very different from the Congo and Sahel. Others chimed in to agree with Ruge, such as Lucy Mbabazi who said, "[Kristof's] made a career out of tarnishing ‪Africa‬'s image covering only crises."

Kristof agreed that rising Africa does need to be covered, but said that his areas of focus (Sudan, Congo, Mali, Somalia, Ogaden) "are under-covered, not over-covered." Kristof did not respond further to the conversation. He finished reflecting on his day in rural Malawi while others, including Ruge continued the discussion.

Journalist Salem Solomon voiced her disagreement with Ruge and support for Kristof's supporting arguing that people have the opportunity to filter out reporting and the audience is in fact changing for these kinds of stories. Ruge replied by pointing towards Kristof's column on Ryan Boyette saying, "I would have preferred [a] balanced report on [Boyette's] wife's efforts for her people too." Solomon agreed, but pointed out that it may have been hard to include more given editing constraints placed on Kristof.

Kristof continues to be a oft-debated figure among aid watchers. His response to Laura Seay's question regarding the use of white saviors in his columns was one that only further enraged his critics. "One way of getting people to read at least a few paragraphs in is to have some kind of a foreign protagonist, some American who they can identify with as a bridge character. And so if this is a way I can get people to care about foreign countries, to read about them, ideally, to get a little bit more involved, then I plead guilty," explained Kristof.

Seay was not happy blogging "In the end, this answer is just another variant of the "good intentions are enough" mindset. It excuses stereotyping in the name of awareness, while assuming that Americans are too parochial to be able to recognize, relate to, and applaud the work of people whose names sound different from ours. It reveals much about Kristof's approach to the people he profiles; as we've discussed here many times before, they're more often characters than people.  Mr. Kristof, I think you can do better."

The overarching discussion of the role of Western media in telling Africa's story continues to spark lively discussions. One side argues that connecting with the maximum audience can ensure that more people understand what is going on in the world. Though the picture is incomplete, more is known than was before making it easier to engage further down the road.

The other side of the argument says that the lack of complexity stunts the opportunity for greater understanding and reaffirms beliefs such as the role of foreign westerners in saving helpless Africans. They point towards failed aid initiatives as examples of the lack of understanding being played out.

Writer Teju Cole explained his disagreement with the first side of the argument, the one upon which Kristof resides, writing in the Atlantic, "His good heart does not always allow him to think constellationally. He does not connect the dots or see the patterns of power behind the isolated "disasters." All he sees are hungry mouths, and he, in his own advocacy-by-journalism way, is putting food in those mouths as fast as he can. All he sees is need, and he sees no need to reason out the need for the need."

The argument between Kristof and Ruge is a continuation of a greater disagreement that remains unsettled. The challenge remains as anecdotes rise above hard evidence. With neither willing to budge, or at least appearing to, the debate will continue. Kristof will write another column that some will take issue with and voice disdain. Groups like Invisible Children will create campaigns that will experience a backlash and lead to articles like the one written by Cole.

The most important question remains: are these efforts getting the world closer to a time when discussions over how to talk about poverty are no longer relevant because poverty is not a problem.