Monday, September 24, 2007

Hope in the Balance

It seems like development is all around. Maybe I've just got development coloured glasses on, but it is as if we're getting more and more into this notion of humanitarianism; in every magazine or newspaper, there seems to be at least one mention of international charity. For me, this is a good and a bad thing. On one side, the developing world becomes synonymous with humanitarian crisis, because all we hear from places like Africa is bad news. In an interesting speech by Andrew Mwenda, posted on Development Crossing, he says "Africa has 53 countries. Of these, only 6 of them currently have civil war. The media therefore only report on 6 countries." On the other hand, though, while Africa iteslf isn't a humanitarian crisis, it does face huge challenges related to poverty, health, and governance. So even if the development issues are disproportionately represented in the media, it's not for us in the West to lose our focus.

Of the 6 countries currently embroiled in civil war, the one we pay most attention to is Darfur. Last week I was able to attend the Darfur:Darfur exhibit at the ROM, the effort of someone outside the bubble of development, but certainly a humanitarian. The aim was to bring awareness to the tragedy currently taking place in Sudan, while at the same time presenting images and music of culture and daily life in the country. The general message? Africa is a continent home to both humanitarian crisis and real life. And we can't forget the second aspect, letting our tendency to think of Africa as a project take over.

For me this was one of the biggest realizations I had in Ethiopia. I'd expected cultural isolation, lonliness and a drastic drop in my standard of living. I was surprised (but entirely happy) to find the contrary, and I settled into a 'real life' for my ten months there. I witnessed poverty and hardship, but that was only a small portion of my overall experience of the country. I'm excited to look at this in more depth in my Africa in the 21st Century course this semester, as we attempt to 'think about Africa as a living place rather than merely as a site for intellectual [and humanitarian] speculation and study.'

Toronto in the World: Upcoming Events
The Branding AIDS Conference
Hope in the Balance

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Special Issue: Africa

Old news is sometimes good news! As I sat in Timothy’s coffee today, adjusting to student life once again, I picked up the July 2007 Vanity Fair. The words Special Issue: Africa were blazoned across the cover, against the background of the smiling faces of Bill and Melinda Gates, and Warrant Buffet. Apparently, the magazine put out 20 different covers that month, all featuring different actors in the current era of philanthropy and activism on behalf of Africa. Not just limited to the cover, “Africa” (in the humanitarian sense) was featured throughout the magazine in articles, photographs and even advertisements (ie, the Red Campaign available at the Gap).

My interest in how we’re getting the message about issues of poverty, HIV/AIDS, and debt in Africa out in North America and Europe is keen; I’m always on the look out for new and innovative ways that individuals, NGOs and companies engaging in the continent. Two months ago, Vanity Fair succeeded in just that. By having Bono (Africa’s self appointed spokesperson) guest edit, the one time fashion magazine was fully co-opted by the movement for change in Africa (or at least one branch of it). The result? A huge group of readers (regular and not), that probably aren’t quite as engaged in the issues as, say, subscribers of the African Economist, were given a pile of information on issues far outside their usual attention.

Although in the development world we constantly question the quality of the interventions performed by these mainstream/celebrity activists, I feel like the initial pull of fame endorsing an issue is important. Get people interested, and only then turn them into critics. The sheer number of people that tune in to big name humanitarian assistance makes them incredible useful, as far as I’m concerned. Even if you don’t believe in Madonna approach to development, its difficult to disagree that it’s better to have her on board than not.

Media moments like this one just passed- the Vanity Fair Africa Special Issue- give me confidence that Africa’s issues are becoming more important to us, here in the West. They are finding their way onto our agenda through interesting and innovative venues. It gives me butterflies in my stomach.

Check out: the Darfar: Darfur exhibit at the ROM in Toronto- From Dusk to 11pm every day between September 8 and 17. Or visit