Martin Herrndorf

Challenging a Meme: When ’Africans’ Are ’No One’

It’s not (only) about good intentions when talking about poverty – the right message can go bad when communicated in the wrong way. A brief case study on philanthropic attitudes and hidden racism.

If you spent some time online, you might have seen it: A bus station photo-shot featuring two posters in simple style – with the captions “one dies, million cry” under the Apple brand mark, and “millions die, no one cries” under a map of Africa.

It is clearly a well-meant and widely received attempt to draw people’s attention to the scandal of global poverty, and the struggles of people living in developing countries. It grossly generalises and exaggerates, which is okay as it does a good job in getting people’s attention. So what could be wrong with that?

Apart from the fact that it feeds on the death of a real person, which one might find distasteful irrespective of whether this person has done good or not, I have some real and serious issues with the image.

Ad 1: It exposes hidden racism

The poster makes a valid point -millions of people die in Africa of unnatural and preventable causes – unsafe drinking water, civil wars, you name it.

What does “no one cries” mean? Actually, millions of people mourn the dead in Africa. It’s their families, their neighbors, their villages, sometimes, when famous, their nations. Comparing African and European funeral rites, I would guess that more (in some places, much more) people cry for the average African dying then for the average European.

Yet – “no one cries” means “no one who is white and lives in places with fancy bus stops.” Apparently, black people in poor countries crying don’t count. The poster thus is at least Eurocentric, if not outright racist.

Ad 2: It stereotypes

The continent shown is the second largest in the world, and the second most populous. Yes, millions of people die here, including millions of unnecessary and preventable deaths. But does that picture account for the millions of local realities. See infant mortality rates. Yes, nine of the 10 bottom countries are all African (Afghanistan is the other one). But no, the picture is not universally bleak: Libya (rank 79) tops Brazil (85) and China (95), Morocco (128) and Uganda (177) top Nepal (140) and Bolivia (143).

While exaggeration and generalization are necessary to sharpen a message and get it across, I guess Africa had enough of that.

Ad 3: Leading to wrong conclusions

The poster implies that the world would be a better place if only people (Westerners/Europeans) mourned African deaths more. Really? It also implies that people (Westerners/Europeans) care more about their personal gadgets then about global issues.

The reality obviously is much more entangled – most people see poverty as a pressing issue, but do not know or see what their life has to do with it. But when given a concrete and actionable opportunity, many do! And if given a credible opportunity to buy electronic products, including those with a fruit mark, which do include metals from war-torn areas that fuel civil wars, nor dispose them in ways that intoxicate African countries.

On the other hand – which tools can we give the millions that do cry to improve their living situation and those of them around them?

Do we need more Steve Jobs? I wouldn’t mind.

Do we need more tears for Africa? Probably not.

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