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06/03/2013

Oxfam ad campaign 'reimagines' Africa, draws criticism

Oxfam2Africa is starvation, hunger and poverty.

That's how the vast majority of British residents answered when they were asked about how they view Africa in a survey commissioned by the influential charity Oxfam.

So Oxfam figured it was time for the continent to be re-imagined, in a manner of speaking, and help locals in Britain see Africa through a different lens.

To that end, Oxfam kicked off 2013 with a new ad campaign highlighting Africa's beautiful scenery. The ads depict lovely waterfalls, fruit markets and lush landscapes.

At the time, Oxfam's then-chief executive, Dame Barbara Stocking, told BBC News, "We want to make sure people have a really better balanced picture of what’s happening in Africa. Of course we have to show what the reality is in the situations in those countries. But we also need to show the other places where things are actually changing, where things are different."

"Let's Make Africa Famous for Its Epic Landscapes, Not Hunger," one ads reads. Another: "Let's Make Africa Famous for Its Food Markets. Not Its Food Shortages."

Oxfam1

Oxfam3Oxfam official Nick Futcher said in a phone interview from London that the campaign was meant to coincide with this month's G8 meeting in the U.K.

Oxfam, which has an annual marketing budget of $6 million, spent about $1.2 million on the campaign, Futcher said.

Futcher said preliminary surveys of about 1,000 respondents suggest the campaign was a success.

"The percentage of people who believe that the global poverty problem can be solved has gone up from 60 per cent in our survey to 75 per cent," he said.

The local press in the U.K. covered the unorthodox ad campaign, and reader reaction was mixed.

"I think it's a great campaign, but what I found a bit upsetting and annoying is that Oxfam is one of the organisations that has spent a great part of its history creating the very stereotype that it is now criticising," said one reader on The Guardian's website.

"Fair enough they have changed their mind but I would like to see just a touch of humility and acceptance of responsibility on their part for the image that they had a hand in creating in the first place."

I read Oxfam's Futcher that comment.

"It would be hypocritical to say that we'll never show people in need again, but I think this campaign really succeeded in convincing people to look at Africa differently," Futcher said. "You have certain ads for certain jobs. I think you'd have to go pretty far back in Oxfam's history to find images that show people without dignity or children in hopeless situations."

Nigeria-based journalist and Huffington Post contributor Tolu Ogunlesi has offered stronger criticism.

"Am I alone in thinking Oxfam's lamentations suggest a British public that is at the mercy of what they are fed. Helpless Brits who somehow cannot – despite all their efforts – rise beyond the bombardment of pity-evoking images of Africa. One might as well rephrase Dame Stocking as follows: 'Oh poor helpless people of Britain, all they're being fed is harrowing, unhelpful images of Africa. We need to stop that. We need to feed them something different. We need to change their diet.'"

If Futcher could do the ad campaign again, he'd do things slightly differently.

"What was missing for donors was, 'what do I do next?'" he said.

Rick Westhead is a foreign affairs writer at the Star. He was based in India as the Star’s South Asia bureau chief from 2008 until 2011 and reports on international aid and development. Follow him on Twitter @rwesthead

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