In the March issue of Afterposten Innsikt I read about an art exhibition in Oslo “Alpha Crucis – Contemporary African Art, Jan 31, 2020 — Sep 6, 2020”. In the article “Africa is a continent. It is about the right context” the authors emphasized that Africa is not a country with a homogenous African art, but a diverse continent with different art movements, shaped by the history of each country. When I discussed this article with my friend, she mentioned Radi-Aid’s awareness campaign “Africa for Norway” from 2012. Our conversation made me think about the stereotypes about Africa and people’s desire to ‘help Africa’. I wondered how Norway helps and how we could think better about the whole concept of the ‘Africa needs our help’, how do people perceive Africa in general and why.
- Why is it disadvantageous to see Africa as a country?
Seeing Africa as a country attributes the problem of an individual country to all 54 African countries, creating the image of “everything is bad all over the continent”. This can lead to an approach of ‘any help is good enough’. This misconception can, for example, result in selling/distributing products of worse quality as in case of #MyAlwaysCampaign started by Kenyan women in 2019.
By helping one country with the problem that another country has, we risk to waste resources by solving illusive problems and even make things worse. If we fail to understand the problem, its causes and enablers, we will not contribute as we could. Research community has been studying examples of projects that failed to achieve desired results (e.g., The empirical reality & sustainable management failures of renewable energy projects in Sub-Saharan Africa (part 1 of 2)).
- Are all African countries the same?
Africa as a continent stands out if we look at poverty situation in the world (Figure 1a). African countries stand out also when we compare life expectancy, wage and salaried workers, undernourishment, and newly HIV infections (Figure 1b). Such pictures create a conception of “most of the countries in Africa are …" which tends to be reduced to “Africa is ...” with time. However, African countries have unique culture, nature and history. Africa as a continent does not catch the eye when we look at plant species, urban population, tuberculosis, and GDP growth (Figure 1c). But these pictures are not common in our everyday life, pictures in media are on the other hand what we see very often (Figure 1d-f). Do the pictures we see in the media influence our stereotypes? Let us look at what evolution has to do with stereotypes formation.
- Implicit bias and stereotypes formation
To make decisions fast in time of danger was a critical skill for our ancestors to survive in the wilderness. That is why evolution provided us with the unconscious or implicit bias, which originates from learning by associations. When our ancestors learned to associate large animals with the danger (those who had not learn did not leave an heir), we automatically became biased against harmless large animals. This bias is the price we pay for a life-saving fast decision-making that saves us from danger. We learn by associations most of what we know: oven – hot, growl – danger, smile – pleased, rain – wet, etc. We do not have to use time and energy to analyze every single moment of our life, we react using unconsciousness (implicit bias). This is a very useful skill but it also comes with the disadvantages as we can be ‘faulty biased’, as in the case of racial, cultural, gender, and social group biases.
The implicit bias plays a role when we learn about Africa by associating ‘poor’, ‘unsanitary’, ‘underdeveloped’, ‘hunger’, ‘poverty’, ‘war’, ‘despair’, ‘unrest’, ‘neediness’ with the whole continent. When this is shown in the media, presented by charity organizations, and learned at school, a person will develop an unconscious bias against African countries over time. By increasing humanity’s surviving, the evolution supplied us with the stereotype formation.
Although the majority of stories in newspapers depict problems, not all news are negative. But why we remember ‘negative’ stories easier?
- Negativity bias
Negativity bias refers to our tendency to learn from, remember and use negative information far more than positive information. We respond more to the negative events than to positive ones and weight negative information more heavily than positive. This bias is an adaptive evolutionary function, similar to an implicit bias. Our ancestors had high chances to survive by being more attentive to negative information (danger and threats such as predators) than by prioritizing positive information (such as beautiful sunset). For a child it is more important to learn the danger of a highway then the charm of flowerbeds. It was shown that negativity bias influences how children learn about their environment, emotion regulation, and understanding others' emotional and mental states (Not all emotions are created equal: The negativity bias in social-emotional development).
Since we respond more to negative stimuli, the media uses it to get our attention. Although research shows that negativity bias in news selection is influenced by personality differences and situational factors (Individual-level differences in negativity biases in news selection), the majority of us will still learn easier and remember more from negative information.
The negativity bias in a combination with the implicit bias can create stereotypes and an image of a continent that needs help, but why humans desire to help in the first place?
- Empathy and social selection
Why tendency for a genuinely moral behavior, empathy and fairness is common for humans? People demonstrate moral behavior when they volunteer, donate blood, avoid eating meat, and pay extra for getting the garbage recycled. People also have a strong sense of fairness. We react when we are being treated unfair (e.g., in case of being underpaid) as well as when someone else is being treated worse than us (e.g., when non gay is participating in a gay pride or paying for coffee for less fortunate ones—suspended coffees). Human empathy holds our societies together and is fundamental for our survival. Empathy is common for both humans and animals. In his book “Are we smart enough to know how smart animals are”, Frans de Waal describes an alpha male chimpanzee at a Swedish zoo who saved the life of a suffocating juvenile by unwrapping the rope from his neck. The chimp performed targeted helping and demonstrated the appreciation of the other’s circumstances. Although some people are more empathic than other, the majority of us are quite good at appreciating feelings and circumstances of others.
Randolph M. Nesse in the "Good reasons for bad feelings” uses evolutionary psychology to describe moral behavior through a “social selection” model: “Because individuals pick the best available partner, those who do what it takes to be a preferred partner get big benefits”. Getting the best partner provides a person with a fitness advantage. Selfish choices can create strong selection for generous individuals: a person with the most to offer chooses the best available partners, thus shaping biological capacities for moral passions and moral behavior that make deep cooperation possible for social groups.
Appreciating other’s circumstances is wired into our brains by the evolution. Empathy, fairness, and moral behavior are inherent in the majority of people. The combination of knowledge (or stereotype?) about ‘unfortunate’ situations people are in and inherent empathy leads to a general human desire to help.
- How can we think better about Africa and what can we do better?
Although evolution determines out tendency to stereotypes formation and negativity, we can still improve the way we think and act. What do we already do? And how can we improve our way thinking and doing?
Norwegian companies and organizations have been already contributing in a variety of ways (Doing Good):
- The Development Fund helps small farmers in Africa, Asia and Central America, in particular in Ethiopia, Guatemala, Malawi, Somalia. The Fund works on training farmers in more sustainable agricultural techniques, on introducing new plants, and on improving knowledge about nutrition. The Fund also encourages to invest in these countries through an active investment.
- World Wild Fund in Norway works on several projects, such as clean energy in Uganda.
- Plan International Norway built ‘girls room’ in several schools in Rwanda.
- Atlantis Exchange sends volunteers to schools in Tanzania.
- Techbridge offers entrepreneurship training for young, newly graduated technology entrepreneurs in Kenya.
- Kavlifondet through the ‘Farm for the Future’ project contributes to the construction and establishment of a large, innovative farm in Tanzania.
- Måsøval built school in Burkina Faso.
- Veidekke built soccer center for girls in South Africa.
- KLP invest in South Afrika, Rwanda and Honduras.
There are also several ways we could improve how we think about Africa that can change the way we act (Thinking Better):
- Media could report more on a country specific level as well as include positive news about development projects and best practices.
- Companies could focus on sharing innovative and sustainable practices, not only focusing on investments and donations.
- Non-profit organizations can promote more diverse image of Africa. In Norway, several organizations are working already in this direction:
- RadiAid organization in Norway (radiaid.com) works to change the way fundraising campaigns communicate and provides advices for those who want to help African countries. Radi-Aid recommends to not exaggerate the story or suggesting that “with your donation, you have changed a life/saved the world”.
- Norwegian Council for Africa (afrika.no/fellesradet) works to remove misconceptions about Africa by disseminating information and contributing to debate and knowledge development through books, reports, newsletters, seminars and websites.
- As individuals we can take responsibility for what information we consume and read more of success stories (for example at afdb.org) and challenge our implicit bias and learn to associate 'development', 'strat-ups', 'public transportation', 'architecture', 'cooperation', 'engineering', 'urban life', 'infrastructure development', 'conferences':
Figure 1. References:
Figure 2. Refrences: