Ethiopia’s Spice Girls, and a manufactured outrage

One of the joys of UK newspapers is the headline: those small sentences that sell the story and attract the reader. Headlines are supposed to grab the eye, entice the reader in, perhaps generate a chuckle or wry smile. They are also, it should go without saying, supposed to bear some relation to the actual content. But journalists often complain that the headline is at odds with their carefully nuanced and balanced piece of reporting and analysis.  One of the most famous of these mismatches, for Africanists at least, is the classic Economist cover in May 2002, ‘The Hopeless continent’, a headline which the then-editor decried and has continued to do so when asked about it. 

Sometimes a headline in one newspaper generates ripples throughout the media as a whole, as the headline becomes the reported story. At the end of last week, news reports about DFID were dominated by one particular story – one generated by a report in a national UK newspaper: the cancellation of a £5 million grant for what was described variously as an ‘Ethiopian girl band’ (© The Independent, BBC News, ITV News, The Express), or ‘Ethiopia’s Spice Girls’ (The Telegraph, The Mirror). The story was first reported (to no-one’s great surprise) in The Daily Mail, part of its ongoing campaign to force the government to backtrack on the 0.7% commitment, to reduce aid spending to programmes that meet the Mail’s approval, and spend the money on the needy at home (though given the coverage of Britain’s most vulnerable in that newspaper, one suspects sympathy for the British poor wouldn’t last very long if it did happen). 

To be fair to the Mail, the headline wasn’t as entirely misleading as to what followed in the main body of the piece, with large omissions, heavy editorialising masquerading as fact, and rentaquote Tory MPs gloating over their Victory for Common Sense. In essence, the story ran as follows: DFID had spent £4 million on an all-girl pop group, Yegna, and was due to spend a further £5.2 million, before common sense kicked in and the grant was cancelled. In addition, a further £38.9 million had been earmarked for the wider Girl Effect programme of which Yegna was a part (I won’t link to The Mail, but if you google it, you’ll see there is some confusion in the piece over what had been spent and what allocated for future disbursements). Other media outlets largely followed suit in their reporting and their headlines. 

On the headline, this does sound like a colossal waste of money. The description of the band as being like the Spice Girls is deliberate: it appears that there is a certain spectrum of middle aged male editors and journalists, for whom any pop group comprised of young women espousing such radical beliefs such as equality and equity for all, ensuring access of all girls to education, helping them make choices over their own bodies, not be physically, sexually or psychologically harassed (you know, those basic human rights things) can only be described through reference to a girl band who first came to prominence in the UK 20 years ago. And it plays well into the Mail’s campaign against UK aid: if DFID is throwing such sums at what is clearly a preposterous idea, then what else is it funding?

The problem with this story is not that some media outlets, led by The Daily Mail, are criticising a perfectly good programme (we’ll come to that later) unfairly. It is that so much of it is half-truth, with significant omissions of detail and fact. The main problem is that the programme being funded is absolutely not Ethiopia’s answer to the Spice Girls, or even a ‘girl band’ as others have put it. Yegna is a self-described entertainment ‘brand’ that has been designed to appeal to young women and adolescent girls, articulate their needs and aspirations, and give information about their rights and their options. There is a music element of this, the ‘band’ part. But other components include radio drama and chat shows to highlight issues of young women’s development and rights. Yegna is more properly seen as a platform through which these messages can be accessed, and has been used by around 8.5 million people.

Moreover, Yegna is only one part of the programme, run by an organisation called ‘Girl Effect’ which seeks to empower young women and girls through the ‘brands’ that are linked to the NGO. Its focus is on encouraging girls to stay on in education, ensuring appropriate health services are available, reducing early marriage. They have made a not unreasonable assumption that entertainment is an important source of news, information and ideas for youth.

The missing background doesn’t even stop there. Funding for this programme was part of an initiative in partnership with the Nike Foundation, ‘Girl Hub’, established in 2010 to focus on addressing the needs and rights of adolescent girls, and ensure their needs were given greater prominence in development planning and policy (it’s quite hard to argue that this wasn’t a necessary objective). Programmes were established with the Nike Foundation in Nigeria, Rwanda and Ethiopia, Girl Effect being one outcome of this initiative in the latter country.

So what looks like a misguided attempt to Get Down with the Kidz by sponsoring a pop group is actually part of a much wider collaboration. It’s not quite as interesting a story, but that’s the annoying thing about facts.

This is not to suggest, as some detractors of The Daily Mail’s version have done, that DFID should have carried on funding the programme. Questions about its effectiveness and approach were raised back in 2012, with the Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI) giving the Girl Hub programme an amber-red warning flag, and calling for greater clarity, transparency and more rigorous evaluation of its activities. Others had questioned the appropriateness of the messages espoused by Girl Effect. (Interestingly, the piece in The Guardian on the affair last week, which offers a defence against some of the attacks from Tory MPs and the Mail, ignored one of its own previous pieces from 2012 which highlighted some of these criticisms: lack of institutional memory, or because this fact, too, didn’t fit the particular spin on the more recent story?) At best, this was a programme requiring careful monitoring – and the decision to end the funding was almost certainly the result of such scrutiny, not the posturing of a certain section of the media (whether that decision was right or not)

Yes, we all know that headlines can mislead, and that newspaper stories can often be more story than news. But the effect is nonetheless insidious, not least because comparatively few outlets contested the narrative established in the Mail’s piece to a meaningful extent. And when one newspaper in particular is repeatedly allowed to get away with misleading stories, and a highly political campaign, facts and truth are all too easily lost. You don’t have to outright lie to mislead (as those brought up as Catholics know, a sin of omission is as serious as a sin of commission).

UK aid should be scrutinised, challenged, expected to be wisely spent. The media storm cooked up over the weekend did nothing to help in that endeavour.

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About Mike Jennings

I am a Senior Lecturer in Development Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London. My work is on the history and politics of international development in sub-Saharan Africa. Research areas include: - The history of development in Africa, from the late nineteenth century to the current day - Politics of East Africa (Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda) - the role of non-state providers (NGOs, FBOs and self-help groups) in welfare service provision - Social aspects of health, including HIV and AIDS, and malaria
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