Are we telling the full and fair story about Africa and the climate crisis? This blog presents the problem with current narratives and explores how we can promote both climate action and Africa’s development prospects.
This post is co-authored by:
Eniola Harrison & Annie Mutamba of Africa Communications Week, and
Isabela Carrozza Joia & Felix Zimmermann of the OECD Development Communication Network*
Heat waves, droughts and floods. Extreme weather events have become an everyday reality for people worldwide. You would have to be on the moon not to know that the climate crisis is real and requires action now.
That is why “bold and rapid collective action” is the motto for this year’s COP-27, to be hosted by Egypt this month. After four European COPs with mixed results, perhaps a summit in Africa can help launch a new period of global climate negotiations.
So what do we know about Africa and the climate crisis? Those of us who work in international development co-operation may have come across two dominant narratives.
The vulnerability narrative highlights how Africa suffers from climate change. It stresses that socio-economic factors like poverty will cause immense human suffering. It warns that natural disasters will greatly increase the number of climate refugees.The saviour narrative focuses on how international partners are solving the continents’ problem by sharing expertise and technology and investing in green projects.
Of course, there is some truth to these narratives. In Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia, climate change has left millions of people without food. Angola is going through its worst drought in 40 years, with almost 1.6 million people facing starvation and thousands moving to Namibia as climate refugees. In response to events like these, many OECD countries are indeed increasing their international climate finance, and have many ongoing projects worldwide.
But do these narratives about vulnerability and external “saviours” tell the full and fair story?
In May 2022, Africa Communications Week and the OECD DevCom Network co-hosted a Workshop on “Africa’s Agency on the Global Climate Stage: What Role for Strategic Communication?”.
The problem with current narratives on Africa and the climate crisis
There is a growing consensus that current narratives on Africa and climate change are problematic. They ignore the efforts by Africa’s governments, businesses and citizens to combat and adapt to the crisis. Portraying Africa’s citizens as victims rather than problem-solvers reinforces negative stereotypes. It also robs audiences in Africa and beyond of hope and inspiration.
The problem is not just with the story, but also with the storytellers. The top individuals tweeting about climate change in Africa are not Africans. And, when Africans do talk about climate on the internet, they tend to be retweeting content from the Global North.
All of this means that key perspectives are lost from the debate.
In the lead up to the COP-27 summit, leaders like Senegalese President Macky Sall have confirmed their commitment to climate action, but stress that African citizens also have other urgent development needs. In Sub-Saharan Africa, more than 50% of the population lack access to electricity. In countries that produce fossil fuels, hundreds of thousands of workers still depend on the extractive industry for their livelihoods.
In pursuit of green policies, wealthy countries have stopped funding fossil-fuel related projects in developing countries, but now face growing accusations of “energy hypocrisy”, having re-ignited their own fossil-fuel power plants in the wake of Russia’s war on Ukraine. These tensions were on display at the Africa Adaptation Summit in the Netherlands earlier this year. Congolese President Felix Tshikedi said that “the African continent has the smallest impact on climate change, but paradoxically suffers the majority of its consequences”.
Much of the debate is about who is responsible for footing the bill. The African Development Bank estimates that the continent needs between USD 118 and 145.5 billion per year to mitigate and adapt to climate change. At the COP-15 Summit in 2009, developed countries pledged to mobilise USD 100 billion per year by 2020 for climate action in all developing countries. At COP-26 last year in Glasgow, developed countries promised to double their annual support for climate adaptation to USD 40 billion per year by 2025.
It is not clear when these promises will be met. Last year, the OECD estimated that the USD 100 billion goal was likely to be reached in 2023, but some civil society organisations have claimed that the true value of climate finance is far lower than reported. These figures are unlikely to rise in the short term, however. Russia’s war on Ukraine has put pressure on budgets and, according to European climate chief Frans Timmermans, dampened public support for international spending. A new Eurobarometer survey reveals that, while Europeans are hugely supportive of development assistance, they place climate action low on their list of perceived priorities.
Recommendations: Towards a New Story for Africa and Climate Action
So where does this leave us as international communications experts who want to promote both climate action and Africa’s development prospects? How can we inspire better policies that combine economic, social and environmental goals? How can we help build more support for international collaboration and funding? How can we turn around paralysing negative stereotypes?
We propose three crucial ways forward.
1. Talk About Solutions, Not Just Problems
We need to show the world that change is possible, and that African actors are leading the way. There are so many fantastic stories to tell, for example about Rosette Muhoza, a young Rwandan woman whose My Green Home initiative turns plastic into durable paving, or about Drop Access, a women- and youth-led Kenyan NGO promoting smarter agriculture and designing solar-powered fridges to transport medical supplies. At the national level, countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo and Gabon are positioning themselves as global problem solvers, showing how to turn an abundance of natural resources into long-term climate solutions.
2. Make it Real for Different Audiences
Our climate headlines continue to feature numbers (e.g. temperature limits or financial commitments) and jargon (e.g. “net-zero”). Instead, we need to link the climate crisis more directly to people’s day-to-day concerns. Depending on our specific local audiences, let’s focus on how climate action can help create jobs, improve security and reduce poverty. Our rural audiences may be inspired about Senegalese farmers fighting desertification, while young, urban audiences may respond to entrepreneurs designing alternative building materials.
3. Promote Dialogue and Mutual Understanding
If we want to help the world find climate solutions, then we also need to build bridges. African actors are unlikely to join the negotiating table if they are portrayed as lacking agency, or if their urgent development concerns are ignored. Communicators thus need to help explain the diversity of African perspectives and amplify African sources of information.
Yet, building bridges is not just about how Africa is seen abroad. It is also about how international development actors are seen in Africa. To operate effectively, these actors need trust and legitimacy. Development communicators can help build trust by explaining how development and climate programmes improve people’s lives. They also need strategies to counter a rising number of mis- and disinformation campaigns.
The global context for this year’s COP-27 could hardly be more difficult. Yet, the Summit is an opportunity to redefine the climate debate so that it reflects Africa’s and the world’s best interests. As proposed by Carlos Lopes, we can shift the discussion from “how Europe could help Africa” to “how we can help the planet together”. Communicators have important roles to play!
* This post represents the personal views of the authors and should not be reported as representing the official views of Africa Communications Week, the OECD or the OECD Development Centre.
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