Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

Judging a magazine by its cover

Bono wants the world to care more about Africa. So do I. After that, it gets a bit harder to see eye to eye.

Bono had a bit of a rough ride at TED Global in Arusha. In the first session of the conference, he found himself heckling Ugandan author Andrew Mwenda. When he took the stage in the next session, to defend the idea that increased aid would benefit Africa, he talked about the benefits of development aid to post-war Germany, an analogy that has some major flaws, as Germany was one of the wealthiest and best educated nations in the world prior to WWII. Most commenters, myself included, saw many of the TED speakers consciously challenging Bono’s idea that increased attention to Africa could lead to increased aid from the G8, and from there to political change. (According to commentator Brendan O’Neill, Bono has now become The People’s Republic of Bono, the ninth member of the G8 – we’ll expect to see his direct aid contributions increasing in the near future. Tip of the hat to Sokari for the link, found in her excellent dissection of Bono’s Africa efforts.)

While I enjoy a bit of Bono-bashing as much as the next guy, it’s worth noting that the rock star’s concern for Africa led directly to the remarkable conference that I and so many others enjoyed. Bono won the inaugural TED prize in 2005, and asked the TED community to help him provide internet connectivity to every school and hospital in Ethiopia. Chris Anderson and the TED staff consulted with a number of tech and development specialists, myself included, before concluding that the task wasn’t possible and was probably politically inappropriate, given Zenawi’s crackdown on political protest after the 2005 parliamentary elections. The TED Global conference focused on Africa in part as a consolation prize for Bono. That the conference had an entirely different flavor than Bono might have organized is a great credit to Chris Anderson, Emeka Okafor and the TED staff – that Bono appeared to have a pretty good time before heading north to yell at G8 leaders is, I think, a credit to him and to his willingness to be challenged by voices from the continent.

I wish the timing had been a bit different, though. It would have been great to see Bono engage with more of the extraordinary Africans who took the stage in Arusha. And I really wish he could have spent time with us before working with Vanity Fair on their July edition – maybe he’d have done things a bit differently. If you want to understand why so many Africans are upset about how they’re portrayed in the northern media, this issue wouldn’t be a bad place to start.

Let’s begin with the cover. Shot by Annie Leibovitz, there are 20 different covers. (Collect the whole set!) Each features a pair of celebrities, shot in closeup in some form of interaction. The twenty are as follows: Don Cheadle, Barack Obama, Muhammed Ali, Queen Rania of Jordan, Bono, Condozeela Rice, George W. Bush, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Brad Pitt, Djimon Hounsou, Madonna, Maya Angelou, Chris Rock, Warren Buffett, Bill and Melinda Gates, Oprah, George Clooney, Jay-Z, Alicia Keys, and Iman Abdulmajid. So… count along with me – that’s three Africans out of twenty cover subjects. Yes, it’s a great representation of African-American influence on American culture, but the actual African participation in the project seem, uh, limited at best.


Jay-Z and George Clooney discuss sustainable farming techniques appropriate for preventing desertification in the Sahel. You’d be surprised – Jay-Z is surprisingly knowledgeable about erosion-resistant ground cover.

In his video interview about the issue, Bono tells us what these twenty people had in common: “They’re passionate about Africa.” And most of them have highly recognizable faces, which never hurts when you’re trying to sell a glossy magazine to society matrons in Iowa. As Bono says, he was trying to “bring some sex appeal to wanting to change the world.” Well, Somali supermodel Iman helps with her attempts to climb out of her dress. And I do suspect that it would have been interesting to listen in on some of the conversations “depicted” on the cover – what do Chris Rock and Warren Buffett say to each other at a joint photo shoot anyway?

The message of the cover is that Africa is important and sexy because important and sexy people care about it and are willing to lend their “talent” and celebrity appeal to the “cause”. This tends to piss off my friends who are begging the world to think of Africa less as a cause and more as a continent, particularly as a continent open for business. How hard would it have been for Vanity Fair to pair some of these well-meaning celebrities with actual Africans working to build businesses, repair hospitals and save forests? Put Corniele Ewango on the cover and let Brad Pitt look up to him, an actual superhero, someone who has risked his life numerous times to preserve the forests of the eastern DRC. Put Madonna on the cover with William Kamkwamba, the remarkable Malawian youth who built a windmill to power his family’s house. (Wait, scratch that – she’d probably adopt him.)


Photo by White African. Don’t sue me, Hash.

Or throw this photo on the cover – here’s Bono talking to some of the young entrepreneurs that George Ayittey terms “the Cheetah Generation”. In the straw hat and badass shirt is Eric Osiakwan, one of the very fastest of the cheetahs, a young innovator who’s worked extremely hard to ensure that the submarine cables that connect the African internet to the North will actually bring down the cost of connectivity on the continent. Vanity Fair isn’t going to make Condoleeza Rice any more famous, but it would probably help Eric get more attention for his work.

But that’s not the point of the issue, as the table of contents makes clear. Genocide in Darfur, AIDS in Rwanda, Jeff Sachs’s attempt to raise $200 billion to transform villages, Madonna in Malawi. The only story in the online table of contents remotely connected to entrepreneurship is a slideshow about the airlines that serve as transport infrastructure for the DRC. It’s possible – and quite likely – that some of these stories are excellent and worth reading. But the overall picture is the one that so many Africans find themselves fighting – Africa as basket case.

Most Americans don’t get it. Howard French, unsurprisingly, does. One of the best journalists of a generation, French knows both Africa and China well enough to see things most people miss. On a flight from Addis Ababa to Beijing, he observes that the vast majority of his passengers are Chinese businessmen, looking for ways to make money on the continent. Flights from America, infrequent as they are, have a different set of passengers:

As I remembered them, the passengers one finds aboard the few existing flights linking the United States to Africa make for an interesting comparison with my Chinese fellow travelers. Yes, there is a smattering of business people and of tourists. But the Americans who travel to Africa tend to be aid workers of one kind or another: officials of the U.S. government and of the international financial institutions, like the World Bank, and the army of well-paid consultants and contractors that they deploy. They are also relief workers and missionaries and Peace Corps volunteers, and academics doing research.

There is much to be gleaned from the contrast here. Chinese people today look at Africa and see opportunity, promise and a fertile field upon which their energies, mercantile and otherwise, can be given full play. Too often, the West looks at Africa and sees a problematic pupil, a sickly patient, and a zone of pestilence, where failure looms in the air like a curse.

As one of those former well-paid contractors, and current researching academic, I can confirm French’s observation. The US businesspeople aren’t getting on the planes yet. Conferences like TED may change the minds of some of the people at Google and AMD, but we’re way behind China, which leads to some of the continent’s more visionary leaders – as well as some of the most repressive – looking eastwards to the future.

If Vanity Fair is on its way to rescue Africa, can you blame Africans for running towards China as fast as they can?

It’s possible to portray Africa in a different light. Ask Emeka Okafor, who put the remarkable speaker list for TED Global together. Flip through the photos on Flickr from the event, including this one, which may be the first example of me being turned into a LOLGeek… Maybe Bono will ask Emeka or some of the other cheetahs for some help the next time someone asks him to represent an entire continent in magazine form.


Update: Several commenters and bloggers have made the point that the contents of the magazine are significantly broader than portrayed on the website, including some of the speakers from the TED Africa conference. Juliana from Afromusing – who’s collected four of the twenty covers – makes this point especially well… With her recommendation, I plan on buying one – though only one – copy of the magazine to see whether I agree with her assessment… :-)

12 Responses to “Judging a magazine by its cover”

  1. imnakoya says:

    This cover has been generating quite some dust since its launch date. And thanks for presenting a more paranomic view of the issue. When things get rowdy I tend to take a very simplistic approach to discern what the issue is: what’s the intent here? My overall assertion is that it has a preponderance of “goodness”. Yes the magazine cover, approach and style are somewhat rough on the edges, but the idea portends a great deal of positive agenda.

    Now compare Bono to the Nigerian multi-millionaire owner of one of the largest circulating newspapers who imported dozens of American hip-hop stars just because he wanted to have a musical fiesta last year. The Nigerian may not be as wealthy and connected as Bono, but he certain has his circle of influence, and he had an excellent opportunity to use his musical jamboree to speak to several nagging social issues in Nigeria (and Africa) but he chose not to! He partied, cashed out big-time, and went home to his wives. His intent was to make a name for his newspaper and cash out! And he did! A dirty, retarded, self-centered buffoon he is!!! And there are several like him all over Africa.

    So when I see “foreigners” taking the initiative to make something happen, even despite their imperfections, they need to be engaged constructively with the full understanding of where they’re coming from. The TED conference, I’m sure, opened Bono’s eyes in many ways and I’m sure if he were in a position to do a remake of the VF edition, he would have done it differently incorporating many of your suggestions.

    Bono (and his like) has a great passion for what he does concerning Africa…but just imagine if few of influential Africans could muster a fraction of his passion and creativity.

  2. Ian says:

    Hi, Ethan.

    As an eight-time visitor to Africa, one who works closely with many energetic and talented Africans trying to improve various facets of the educational system in places like South Africa and Uganda, I share your frustration with the prevailing branding of Africa as a dysfunctional basket case. I see incredible resourcefulness and energy wherever I look.

    On the other hand, the just-out issue of National Geographic (July 2007, not on the web yet) has a cover story entitled “Malaria: Stopping a Global Killer”. A good deal of the story focuses on Zambia, in whose north-west province children have a 135% chance of contracting malaria in any given year. Yep, over 100%: that means on average, children get it more than once a year. The article does portray malaria as a global problem, but also points out the horrendous economic cost to Africa in particular.

    While reading the story, I found myself wondering whether malaria might not be the “elephant in the living room” in discussions of African economic health. Could mitigating its impact have a stronger effect on most Africans living in malarial zones than entrepreneurial efforts and investment? How can we have a serious discussion about African aid, economy, and investment without addressing this?

    On the other hand, I can’t help but be awed by the resourcefulness and toughness of people who can generate the kinds of economic creativity and success you keep documenting, *despite* the huge lead weight of chronic illness and child mortality pulling them downward. It makes me suspect that if malaria and HIV/AIDS can ever be eliminated or contained, African economies might really explode (in a good way).

    My experience in malarial-zone countries is limited, but I’ve seen a similar effect due to HIV/AIDS in my educational work in South Africa. I’ve visited schools, worked with teachers, and worked with teacher-educators, and one thing that becomes very clear is that the preponderance of chronic illness and child-headed households has created a very different social matrix for classroom activity than in most developed countries. Teachers must parent, nurse, and counsel as well as teach, or the teaching has little effect. Discussing “educational issues” in SA without addressing the social and epidemiological problems to at least some extent is just silly.

    I understand the branding problem the continent and its countries face, but I’m reluctant to overlook very, very large problems that are — or, at least, might be — significant factors in the things we do want to focus on. Optimist, yes. Cheerleader, no.

    Perhaps one viable answer to the “Africa: to aid or not?” debate is “Provide aid by fighting malaria and HIV/AIDS, and by supporting political stability, and let the economy boom by itself without interference.” Just a thought from a relatively amateur observer.

    Cheers,
    :ian

  3. alice b. says:

    So well said Ethan. And amazing how the same could be said about places like Haiti… But in the case of Haiti, Irish telecom mogul Denis O’Brien (sp?) (aka Caribbean telcom giant Digicel’s CEO) got the picture. Yes, not an American…

  4. bankelele says:

    Finaly got a copy over the weekend, whcih i am still reading. Already I see an arbitrage opportunity since VF ($3.9 cover price) retails for around $16 in Nairobi. On the cover, I’d have liked the celebs (20 stars who’ll sell the mag) to pose with 20 Africans (who’ll tell their life changing stories inside the issue). Oh well I’m sure other magazines will imitate VF and you’ll see special issues on Africa

  5. Hash says:

    Well, at least someone can sum up everything intelligently. This was the best read I’ve had on the subject since it began at TED.

    I’m particularly concerned about the aid vs trade issue. Primarily because it is too simplistic and much deeper than it at first sounds. It’s not just about aid vs trade, it’s about bad aid vs trade. It’s also about perception and story telling. Not least, it’s also about the reasons why people want to do things in Africa.

    I too would love to have seen the TEDGlobal conversations take place first, THEN see Bono and Vanity Fair (and the G8) listen and act. It’s not that Africa doesn’t need the attention, it’s that it needs it in a different way.

    You can see why some of the entrepreneurs that I talk to in Africa just choose not to care any longer. They’ll go about it their own way. Forget government. Forget aid organizations. They’re the cheetahs and will railroad their own plans through to completion.

    Good for them.

    (oh, no problem using the pictures, have at them!)

  6. dara says:

    GREAT post!

    I agree with the above comment (Hash)-”It’s not that Africa doesn’t need the attention, it’s that it needs it in a different way.”

    It’s amazing how many people still believe Africa to be a country instead of a vast continent. Nowadays when you mention “Africa” many people think of Angelina Jolie or Madonna and that’s sad. VF had the opportunity to pair one celebrity with one African contributing to positive transformation on the continent. Unfortunately they didn’t take advantage of this opportunity, instead they settled back into that same old topic of conversation–disease and despair. There’s more to Africa than sorrow. Readers of African blogs know this, but the mainstream could have been enlightened by VF

  7. Jean says:

    Hi Ethan,
    There will always be part of the population whose motive for doing something is charity. Your article describe it pretty well among the “people”.

    However, there is a growing attraction of business oriented person towards Africa, and not only for charity purpose. A lot of investors looking at what is happening in Africa, in particular, the M-Pesa initiatives (Safaricom in East Africa) in m-banking has been spread out in many countries (even in France!).

    Finally, I would have been lightly more balanced, even if many people still have in mind a poor continent needing help (which is still the case anyway).
    Jean

  8. Sijui says:

    To Ian,

    “Could mitigating its impact have a stronger effect on most Africans living in malarial zones than entrepreneurial efforts and investment”……in my humble opinion, NO. Widespread health interventions to wipe out these perennial diseases is not a panacea, definitely not in combating the wider socio-economic malaise that ‘breeds’ these diseases in the first place. Combating malaria transcends purely a ‘health intervention’, it is impacted by physical infrastructure, quality of livelihood, lifestyle choice, access to information etc. Hence the reason why many Africans would view the question you posed as simplistic and superficial; the issue of malaria and disease on the continent is structural and multi-faceted, too often too few people understand that moreover those who do are incapable of addressing the issue in totality.

    My understanding of the growing ‘resistance’ to the prevailing paradigm on Africa is that Africans are inculcating an ‘appreciation’ of the structural weaknesses in their societies, and as a consequence are becoming fully attuned to the fact that only they can make the requisite revisions and investments that holistically solve the deficiencies. In the case of malaria, the disease will only be conquered when several things occur simultaneously: improved infrastructure, economic empowerment, ability to make informed lifestyle choices, supporting social investment. The ‘cheetahs’ at TED understand this hence the mantra “we get our problems……..believe me nobody can get it better than us including solving them”

  9. omodudu says:

    Truth be told, there is a sort of catch 22 for foreigners who attempt to “help’ Africa out of its present state. The history behind such project is a fertile ground for various shades of conspiracy theories. I’d say Bono is pursuing a course which he believes in. If only the rest of us would do the same, the chances of a few getting it right will be greatly increased. I am not a fan of celebrity driven economic programs, makes very little sense to me. Also the shock treatment (injection of monies) which Africa often receive in the form of aid may do much more harm than good. Overall I’d say the Vanity Fair cover was a successful project after all they are publishers and they have generated as much cheap publicity as they need to last them a lifetime.

  10. Good analysis Ethan. Reading your and many others’ analysis of the VF issue, I’ve come to notice that there are two versions of the “Africa Issue”. The online presence of the issue feeds into much of cliches what you’ve outlined here, and the print version of the issue, gets into the real content. I can only attribute the stark difference to the fact that there were more concerned editors for the print version, while the VF staff, as unknowledgeable as they are, pieced together the online product based on how they saw fit. While the print version of the magazine was no award-winner (far from it even), I do think that it communicated more about Africa than the AIDS/corruption-ridden image. This difference, between the two products to me, shows how disconnected American and African cultures are today.

  11. Erik says:

    As a person who at one point spent several years on the African poverty-alleviation/economic development conference circuit, my feeling is that the one thing African doesn’t need is more poverty-alleviation/economic development conferences, even good ones.

    All these yakking festivals really do is reinforce the notion, so spectacularly common in Africa, that social and economic progress is driven by meetings of big-talking VIPs. They also inevitably strengthen the local begging and patronage economies wherever they take place.

    What Africa really needs is a period of near-total benign neglect from the West and its infantilizing honkey guilt complexes, and a massive influx of hard-eyed, even brutal capital and managerial expertise from Asia.

    Drive the NGO-niks and conference-wallahs into the forest and let a hundred thousand Chinese-owned sweatshops bloom in their place.

    By the time Vanity Fair does a cover story about the medieval horrors of Chinese colonialism in Africa, we’ll know we’re actually on the way to making it a continent rather than a cause.

  12. ngum says:

    “Bono (and his like) has a great passion for what he does concerning Africa…but just imagine if few of influential Africans could muster a fraction of his passion and creativity.”

    So many already are. They’re just not as famous as Bono.

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