The geo-branding war

Geo-branding is a serious thing. It is particularly serious when people from other geographic areas decide to brand your geographical area and the people in it, the way they see fit and the way that fits their purposes. No other country, region or continent, I’d argue, suffers from other peoples’ nonsense as much as the continent of Africa. Actually, the reason why people generally and casually talk about Africa as one place is because of what Nigerian-American author C. P. Eze refers to as “their geo-branding war”.

Warfare indeed. Eze of course is concerned with business. He argues that the image issues instigated by outsiders – oftentimes the representatives of the aid industry – hurt the business sector as the whole continent is seen as unworthy of investment. Very importantly, according to Eze, an increase of just 1% of Africa’s share of global trade would bring in US$70 billion annually; more than all aid and debt relief combined. Yet the trade with African countries is not encouraged much in the West. I have made mention of Eze’s book before, and I, as much as many others here, have written about the role the NGO sector plays in news gathering from the African continent – in short a very central one. There is no shortage of these pseudo-selfless, supposedly well meaning case studies around so lets have a look at a current one.

At the moment I am based in Helsinki, Finland, and currently all over town we are bombarded with images of a new advertising campaign.

Seemingly endless amounts of paid posters with a model depicting a generic shirtless African rebel soldier with baby-oiled-slash-sweaty body and an intense look, carrying a rifle on his back, squeezing the strap in his fist and wearing some kind of necklace, which may or may not be intended to appear witchcrafty, and a belt full of ammunition. All this makes him look like some kind of Nollywood version of Rambo against a dramatic black background. The text in the advert says “future chef” and the key that is dangling from the aforementioned necklace suggests that he needs to be given a key to a better job opportunity. That metaphoric key in real term means our financial donation and perhaps a signature in a petition which, the campaign promises, can change the destiny of this poor soul.

There are other images too; some of them featuring other models, some with the same male model, now smiling with a little less witchcrafty necklace and his upper body no longer bare, but covered with a worn-out t-shirt advertising the first US Iraq war effort from the early nineties. I am scared to even attempt to attach meaning to it. According to the photographer Antti Viitala these photos were taken in Cape Town, South Africa and the campaign was designed by Helsinki based advertising agency Dynamo. Viitala says that the models used had been spotted on the streets of Cape Town.

So they are just that; models who broadly appear to fit the purposes of the campaign. For the gentleman in the leading image that means that basically he’s black. That is enough.

The campaign is run by Finn Church Aid, a missionary and aid wing of the Finnish Lutheran Church – the state church – which especially in recent years has struggled with negative stereotypes of their own in the form of homophobia that undeniable exists within their ranks. They don’t like to be represented in a simplified manner themselves, but when it comes to others, this moral consideration is less central. The campaign is a high profile one. Its patron is Nobel Peace Prize laureate and former President of Finland Martti Ahtisaari (1994-2000) and the purpose is to both influence politicians and to raise funds. Of course it has to be said here that this problem at hand is bigger than this campaign. It’s a global issue, mainly instigated by the civil sectors, some media and a traditionally inaccurate and one-sided history of colonialism that is still being read and told in the countries of the global north. True, the Finnish church is follower rather than a leader in this, but I am curious to know a bit more about what goes on when an idea like this is born. After asking from the photographer – who was helpful but who also wasn’t sure what my point was; and I felt that that in itself was noteworthy – I emailed the public relations and communications officer Veera Hämäläinen, who is part of the team behind this campaign to hear her version of the story.

The first thing I realised from our correspondence is that Hämäläinen and I really see this whole phenomenon differently. She insists that the campaign is a positive one. She mainly feels that way because the text in the middle of the poster suggests that this shirtless rebel soldier is a future chef. So this is a positive transformation and the video version of the advert and further reading material on the campaign’s website explains this to her satisfaction.

Here’s that video:

Hämäläinen also believes that Finns are clever enough people to understand the simplification. I, as a human being, but one that could also be described as a Finn, would strongly disagree.

I watched the ad online, but haven’t seen it on TV yet – even though in our household the TV is on quite a bit (maybe our family doesn’t watch channels where church would advertise on). What I have seen, however, are tons and tons of these posters. I couldn’t imagine that under any circumstances would I have read the additional information online if I didn’t decided to write about this. I think it’s ambitious to think that people would take anything other from this campaign than, yeah, that’s Africa alright; always in trouble and always needing help–our help–nothing new. I wish this wasn’t the case but I have lived this life and heard people speak, even many very clever ones, so I am not just trying to be negative about it. I am trying to be realistic: these images have just been used as they were considered as the most effective ones regardless of their nature. Also, and I really don’t even wish to take this opportunity to be too sarcastic about it, but questioning its sources hasn’t traditionally been the church’s, or its followers’, strong point.

So I’d argue that what we are really left with is the poster and for the most part its photograph. There are a lot of these images everywhere – there hasn’t been this kind of ‘military presence’ on the streets of Helsinki since the 1940’s – but now this what appears to be a two-dimensional cloned nondescript African rebel army stares at me from my neighborhood bus stop, all the way to the office, to town and pretty much anywhere else I might want to go. From a distance, in a hurry or uninterested, one is not able to read the text – or just care to read it – and the imaging is building on our collective prejudices, our already existing ideas of Africa. I am not talking about any silly magic bullet theory here, but this is part of the same narrative that has been explained to us in media, school books and also very importantly in these aid campaigns. It’s not a question of this, or any other country’s collective cleverness, because this doesn’t break a pattern. It continues it like there simply was nothing wrong with it and based on my correspondence with campaign people I am getting a distinct sense that they don’t have any issues around this representation.

It’s quite curious how it is possible to see one thing differently. Hämäläinen explains that this campaign is unlike the ones before it: “We have chosen a different angle,” she says, “not always using images of starving children, but for a change strong young people from developing countries, who are able to be in charge of their future as long as they are given the right tools.”

So that’s what this is about: breaking the pattern. I admit this guy is no child – even though they may have been generous with the baby oil – but I just can’t see how this is a complete departure from the traditional style of imaging aid campaigns. It still communicates three very traditional ideas: 1) Africa,  2) problem and 3) ’our help needed’. I am wondering how this impacts the many people from around Africa who live and work in Finland? Is there no chance that the negative attitudes towards immigrants are strengthened if the native people conclude that we have basically done a massive favour to each and every one of them? I ask my South African wife and she’s not impressed, but of course the point here must be that one doesn’t have to be from Africa to see and condemn the problems of these image politics. Too many people are still thinking that if it’s not directly about you, then why complain. But that’s nonsense. We are all people here.

Then Hämäläinen surprises me by mentioning that this is not just about Africa though. Youth unemployment is a global issue. Of course she’s right. She continues to say that for this campaign however the developing world is the target. So not Africa as such but, (even) more broadly, the developing countries in general and this single image has been selected to communicate that. If you carefully read the website you’ll find mention of specific countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo and Honduras, although by now I think it is evident that my focus is less on what the project is about and more how they choose to communicate it. I think it would also be misleading to suggest that the small print and the big print are as effective. I’d venture a guess that not many of the ones seeing the poster will read all of the material available.

How about the trade aspect? I am wondering what this kind of campaigns that very much support our existing negative ideas of Africa – again, very generally – do in a long run to the trade? The attitudes of the business sector? Does it matter? “Trade aspect is important,” she admits, “it’s important for it to grow. In this campaign we have wanted to highlight one angle and describe the magnitude of the problem at hand – 80 million unemployed youth and most of them in the developing world – and something must be done on the grassroots level although of course, politicians could also use their own forums to make difference.”

Fair play, except essentially that is to say politely that as important as trade may be, it’s got nothing to do with us.

I am not suggesting that any overtly positive spin should necessarily be applied – just information that is more accurate, balanced and with a bit more context. Are we Europeans (North Americans, Australians, etc) so jaded that we need to be hit on the head with the worst of problems before we will react? I am asking genuinely since I don’t have an answer to this question. I have been thinking about the ethics of development aid work a lot and I think it’s still something where a lot of dialogue needs to be had.

Neither am I suggesting that these campaigns never have any positive results, but I have seen this sector enough to say that they advertise to both justify and secure their own existence and function. I know that these organisations often have glass ceilings for the staff members from the southern partner countries and I think that the aid industrial complex is altogether… well, a complex matter, but is there a realistic way for it to be something other than patronising and enforce the pre-existing ideas of geographical – and I can’t leave it unsaid, ethnic – hierarchies that are around, no matter how much you or I may wish they were not?

My understanding of this whole situation could be summarised by my five year old son’s current key phrase. “This is unfair.” I would like to think that this is more inconsiderate than evil, but we are playing with images of real people, and therefore their lives here. People are not some kind of mascots you can freely use in any way you wish for fundraising purposes in order to be able to hire yourself to help them. One problem doesn’t mandate you to create another problem. At the very latest, now is the time to discard ‘good intentions’ as sufficient justification to absolutely any shock tactics or otherwise. The Finnish church and their ilk won’t do it, but as people, surely we need to start questioning the dominant practices of aid advertising. It would still be better late than never.


17 thoughts on “The geo-branding war

  1. Thank you for such an interesting and thoughtful article.

    I personally am sympathetic to the charity that produced this poster, while at the same time deeply sceptical about aid in general. Firstly if your aim is to raise money to give (presumably in kind) to needy people in the Congo, and there undoubtedly are many of those, then the publicity cannot portray Africans in the modern, self confident light that the author of this article would presumably like to see. There is clearly a trade off between raising money and distorting people’s view of Africans.

    On the subject of aid in general I like to look at it like this: it is case that over the past few decades hundreds of millions of people around the world have climbed out of poverty, but I find it hard to argue that much of this is down to the activities of Oxfam or Christian Aid. This author is right to highlight trade as a more realistic path to reduced poverty and I think it is false to claim that this is out of the hands of the ordinary person. I personally would much rather support a campaign to, say, encourage governments to complete the Doha round than give a few pounds in aid to assuage my guilt.

    • @ Eric, thanks very much for your comment. A few things; you say “there is clearly a trade off between raising money and distorting people’s view of Africans”, and I say, yes there clearly is. I find it very unethical and patronising and it has many negatives to it, but my core concern here is that it doesn’t seem to matter much to most and most of all these campaign people don’t really ‘get it’ either way. I am not in direct opposition to aid work in all of its forms. I am sure there are many great achievements on grassroots level and otherwise that can be attributed to it, although I really don’t see aid as an actual solution – more like a band aid for broken leg – on this I gather we very much agree anyway. My concern is that the poeple of the aid industry (it’s not an accident I refer to it as industry) need to put themselves on check and, to quote myself if that’s not terribly arrogant “now is the time to discard ‘good intentions’ as sufficient justification to absolutely any shock tactics”.

  2. The author suggests that images of real people are used 1. for fundraising purposes, 2. in order to be able to hire yourself 3. to help them. Also, the matter of a “glass ceiling for Southern partners” is mentioned.

    As director of a welfare organization that started in a Namibian town, started by a local Namibian church, without much state help, run for more than a decade now for the benefit of Namibian children, I can say from experience that 1. we are only too happy for fundraising efforts in more developed countries, but we are concerned about the truth in those efforts, 2. all of us here are fully and directly involved, so that no activity is created with the purpose of hiring anyone who is not directly and fully involved with our day to day activities, but I can also say that it is enormously difficult to get direct aid from developed countries for local salaries, which makes it difficult to run core activities on a continuous basis, 3. that being helped, we want to be creatively partnering on all levels of the process.

    “The Finnish church and their ilk won’t do it….. ” (Questioning the dominant practices of aid advertising). I have no first hand knowledge of the Finnish church, but being a Christian, I think we just have to do a lot more ecumenical dialogue. So I see your remark more as a challenge to the Finnish church, than as a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    • @ sandwrit, thanks for your views. It is interesting to hear your side and by the sound of it you’re part of the local activities – civil sector even if on a religious mandate – and what I am writing about is quite a different matter altogether. More than the aid work on a grassroots project level – which I also think needs to be critically assessed on every level – I am worried about these communication strategies. Of course I think that active citizenry is key in any society and I (almost) always applaud that. So I obviously am not knocking any project work, but the way it’s conducted and talked about; I would like to draw attention to these areas I find problematic because I feel that they are left uncriticised because there are such ‘good intentions’ behind them that people are easily branded as hostile if anything else is said about them. I have seen this same issue on other areas of society as well. The fact that something positive is attempted is seen as good enough reason to place the initiative above any criticism. I am hoping that whatever I say could be seen as constructive feedback.

      I think what you say here: “it is enormously difficult to get direct aid from developed countries for local salaries” is quite central and having worked on this sector and having followed it for some time I always tend to find a European (American, Australian, etc) in charge of everything – sometimes you really have to scroll down the list of employees to find local names. I am not saying that it’s always the case – just that I have seen enough of it to conclude that it is a common enough occurrence. It’s a question of ownership in its many meanings and hierarchies that are also deeply rooted in history of colonialism and missionary work (which always aren’t all that separate histories).

      Personal faith is anyone’s private matter – organised religion tends not to fully remain that. We don’t agree on religious matters, which of course is perfectly fine, but sure, if ‘ecumenical dialogue’ can bring any improvements then I guess in the religious context that is something to be done.

  3. Mikko,

    I read this image as part of the glam-activism trope that seems to have become the trend. Activism – chic. Slick-representation of complex problems. I see it as part of the greater spectrum of depoliticised/ depoliticising the problems of power, race, The decline of a credible ‘revolutionary’ (even if naive and illinformed) politics in many parts of the global South and the rise of the NGOist – Aid ’cause/movement’ since the mid-1980s in the West.

    I have to run but I will write more later. These are my first thoughts when I saw the image.

    You see, the image is a product of the entire aid sector and the ways in which Westerners choose to represent Africa to each other as though Africans will not be commenting or reading these images as they circulate (there are a variety of ways, some gritty, fly on the Black child, some slick and chic like Kony2012).

    The image cannot be viewed outside of that which produces it. Ok so such images circulate and take a momentum and life of their own. But I’ll tell you later why I think Africans are perhaps not producing alternative images or symbols, or otherwise, why those alternative images or symbols are no longer as popular since the end of the Cold War.

    We had our own political imagery and language. But that has all become taken over by activism-chic and Che Guevara chic as global capitalism turns aid into a virtue. Of course aid is important in many cases.

    But this also speaks to us in the South and whether we even want to disentangle ourselves from power relations which subordinate our needs. We ourselves are caught up in the thrall of shiny capitalism so we can be part of the slick ‘baby-oil’ world of consumerism.


    • Langa, I do hope you are able to come back and continue – interesting stuff. I find the term glam-activism quite apt. Thanks for you comment.

  4. Thank you Mikko for the blog entry, which sheds light on an old problem: our perceptions of Africa and non-Finns in general. This campaign by the church shows that things are not going to change on this front rapidly. In many respects the whole issue tells us what is wrong with the ongoing debate on immigration, immigrants and our ever-growing cultural diversity in Finland. How do we relate to it? What is it and why? Where do we place these people and position ourselves? We speak of two-way integration without understanding what it means in practice. A lot of questions out there but dear little answers.

    • Thanks Migrant Tales aka Enrique.This piece was reblogged at Migrant Tales blog today which is – I would say – Finland’s leading progressive platform for immigration talk and matters related to it. There’s some more discussion going on there; it’s more specifically about Finland and some of it in Finnish, but let me share that link either way

      • Thank you Mikko for sharing your blog entry on our blog. We enjoy reding these kinds of things and commenting on them.

  5. Thanks for an interesting read. I agree that the common representation of ‘Africa’ in contemporary development is problematic – not just in Finland. However, I do think that it is important to acknowledge that ‘Africans’ also are part of representing themselves – they are not just passive subjects.

    For instance the Nollywood movies mentioned in the article quite commonly essentialise ‘African culture’ (seen from a Western perspective anyway). In the discussion of he legality of homosexuality in for example Uganda and Sierra Leone the term ‘African culture’ as an opposition to European Culture also comes up quite often (Homosexuality is according to ellen sirleaf johnson not a part of African culture). Additionally since the 1990s there has been a rise of conscious political strategies of asserting autochthony / indigenous identity.

    I do agree that development discourses about Africa are problematic – but the same can be said about many African presentations of Africa. This makes me questions: what is a right way to represent Africa? – and who decides whether a representation is right or wrong? Surely trade is only one of many parameters.

    • @ Morten, thanks for your comment. I agree ’Africa’ (and I use here, as much I did in my piece, a very general way of speaking about it, not because I think one should, but because I am talking about how people talk about it) is not a passive subject. I would never suggest that and all in all perhaps you’ve attached a tad too much ambition to my writing – it wasn’t meant to be all-encompassing study on image of the continent all around, but as a person who lives, and is from, Europe, I am looking critically at our societies for the role they play in this image problem. I think if only possible, it’s good to always start from closer to home. I also find that disproportionate blame of the continents image problems are already solely laid on its own representations.

      I’d be intrigued to read someone who knows more about it than I do, to write about how ‘Africa’ speaks back to these images and what are the images they provide. It’s an interesting topic and I am sure someone somewhere has already covered it.

      I don’t however think that images that, say, Nollywood or some – however many – politicians from continent spread and the one that is spread by outsiders are on the same level. Hollywood spreads its own image of United States, that I am sure many citizens disagree with, but at least it’s an American representation. One of them.

      I think that for those of us who are from the northern countries, it’d be a helpful exercise to imagine if the situation was reverse. I am not sure if you’re Swede (based on your name you could be, but even if not, bare with me), but I was explaining this thing here in Finland asking what if on the streets of Stockholm there was a huge campaign with images of Finns and Finnish immigrants in Sweden looking all rough and alcoholic. The goal was to help these people with their issue. Now, we all know that there is a lot of alcoholism amongst these groups but no matter how well meaning this initiative would be, we would all condemn it. No doubt about it. It would be crossing a line. And these people in these images are just people like us.

  6. Thank you for your blog, the critique and the discussion.
    I just want to straighten some facts in your text – and yes, I do work at Finn Church Aid.
    Finn Church Aid is not a missionary, but an independent non-governmental organization. We work regardless of people’s religious beliefs, ethnic background or political convictions. We do have close ties with the Evangelic Lutheran Church in Finland, but the Church does not make decisions about our work.
    And btw, Finland no longer has a state-church structure.
    Best regards,
    Ulla Kärki, Media Officer, Finn Church Aid

    • @ Ulla

      Definitions here are a bit vague at times – the relationship between the church and the state practically speaking is like the one of state church (including entitlement to collect taxes, when the baby is born the magistrate document provides specific place in their form for Lutheran church, but to no other religious group and I think every Finn would be able to continue this list for a quite a bit longer) and the church is commonly referred to as state church. Indeed, I’d say that even if no longer (since 2000) on an official capacity, in actuality the church receives enough special treatment and positive discrimination within our society that I don’t feel this was a factual error in practice even if it was in theory, but that, either way, is way beside the focus of the piece. As far as your other point goes, I have used the term missionary in the way I define it, because I think that religious aid cannot fully divorce itself from the concept. You may disagree, but if a political party did development aid, I’d consider their work to be influenced by their ideas as well. Having said that, I do apologise for using wrong terms even if I think that a good case can be made to defend both of these points (and I do – as I have – defend both of them). Let me, however, stress that neither one of the issues you raise are in any way central to the criticisms here and it is indeed those core concerns that you should be addressing.

  7. Interesting post! So much to unpack from the image…There are some aspects you don’t get to, but that puzzle me, first among them being the whole underlying premise: future chef? So this Finnish church is going to lure scary gorgeous former combatants out of some jungle somewhere in the developing world and turn them into…chefs? I have nothing against chefs, I just don’t find it a compelling “dream” for building a vibrant economic life in a developing, presumably post-conflict, country. Future lawyer…I’m with you. Future business leader. Future teacher. Future engineer. There are really dozens of occupations/professions that have more resonance. You are so right about the irritating generic-ness of it all, but the problem seems to go deeper, to this being an expensive glossy ad campaign for a project that does not really understand either its audience, its beneficiaries, or its own program. Weird.

  8. It’s taken a little while for me to get on to comment on this, I read it almost immediately after you posted it. I agree with Susan above and also make the point that if the charity is promoting the notion of ‘give them opportunities and they’ll be good chefs’, it makes the assumption that the alternative is for people to turn to crime and to become the menacing and scary figure that exists before the light of good opportunities were shed upon him. The advert says to me, ‘give this person money so that he doesn’t become a dangerous criminal because that’s what will happen and we’ll have to keep asking you for money when he doesn’t get a job as a chef and reinvest in his economy which we and our government keep exploiting to ensure power dynamics remain the same’…..perhaps a bit much to read into one image.

    Also, @Morten- I imagine not many people who watched Hollywood films think car chases and unrealistic story lines are a reflection of every North American’s life. You watch films and you take them with a pinch of salt, not expect it to be a representation of ‘Africanness’. To suggest that Nollywood doesn’t represent Africa well is a little ignorant, bearing in mind Nollywood is a Nigerian film industry and the rest of Africa has not officially sanctioned their representation by a few Nigerian directors.

    All in all though, I imagine there must have been some Africans who were involved in the directive process of this campaign and their permission must have been enough for the Church Aid.

    I do wish more was done to target world governments and to challenge those trade relationships and human rights issues that perpetuate awful and unequal societies.

  9. @ Susan and Derin,

    Besides chef there were some other adverts with different images and job titles such as mechanic and farmer, but I don’t think any of this disproves your point. I think the key thing here anyway way is that the image I have focused on has been the dominant image and the rest of adverts haven’t been anywhere near as visible.


    “I imagine there must have been some Africans who were involved in the directive process”

    I cannot be sure, but I honestly doubt there were any Africans of any nation who were part of planning this campaign. Certainly not in the ad agency that has done this campaign. Otherwise agreed; especially about Nollywood.

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