The backlash against how media and aid organizations portray Africans has reached a fever pitch. A wave of criticism has pointed out how American journalists only cover Africa’s outbreaks of disease, disaster and violence, while overlooking the region’s many political and economic success stories.
Academic commentaries (including recent Monkey Cage posts) on so-called “Ooga booga” journalism are legion, but perhaps the best summary lies in parody, courtesy of The Onion newspaper headline, “Tens of Thousands Dead in Ongoing Africa.”
Foreign aid agencies — or, to one critic, the “White Savior Industrial Complex” — also focus on the negative as part of their fundraising efforts, playing up narratives that Africa’s helpless victims can only be saved by the West. Again, some of the most compelling criticism lies in comedy: Witness the faux campaign Radi-Aid, which apes Band Aid’s famous fundraising efforts with a hilarious music video in which South African singers croon their request that viewers share Africa’s warmth by donating radiators to frigid Norway.
What are the consequences of these Western portrayals of Africans? Critics have made numerous speculations: misinformation, stereotyping, validation of white privilege, excessive fear of foreigners and immigrants and even mishandled foreign policy interventions. The list of purported consequences is so long that at times it becomes internally contradictory. Jeffrey Sachs, the aid regime’s leading intellectual proponent, attributes the alleged shortfall in aid funding to Westerners’ resentment — “an amazing reservoir of deep prejudices” — against Africans. By contrast, his intellectual archrival, William Easterly, blames what he sees to be excessive and wasteful aid spending on Westerners’ paternalistic attitudes toward Africans: Donors reduce aid effectiveness by controlling what recipients can do with it. Are any of these speculations accurate?
In a new article published in the American Political Science Review (gated and ungated versions), I report on two different Internet-based survey experiments that I conducted in 2011 and 2012 on white U.S. respondents. I explored the nature of white Americans’ attitudes toward foreigners of African descent as well as the manner in which these attitudes shape their opinions about aid. I expected to find that white Americans are more paternalistic than they are stingy and resentful toward foreigners of African descent. After all, the recurring helpless-victim storyline dehumanizes foreign blacks by downplaying their ability to exercise agency — that is, their capacity to plan and follow through on efforts to improve their own lot.
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