Graham Harrison, The African Presence: Representations of Africa in the construction of Britishness

Graham Harrison, The African Presence: Representations of Africa in the construction of Britishness (Manchester: Manchester University Press 2013) 232 pp. £17.99 Pb, £75.00 Hb. ISBN: 978-0-7190-8885-8

Images such as a starving black child, disaster, poverty and famine in Africa are commonly used by Africa campaign organisations in Britain. Despite these representations of Africa and Africans being so embedded within British society, they raise some questions: How were these images constructed? Why do NGOs use them?

In this book, Graham Harrison, Professor of Politics at the University of Sheffield, who has carried out research in Africa since 1990, analyses 'the ways that representations of Africa have contributed to the changing nature of British national identity'. Harrison argues that Africa campaigns are 'introverted', addressed to Britons and they display Africa and Africans as 'devoid of agency' (1). From Abolition to the present day, he shows how the Africa campaigns in Britain have served more to 'contribute to a process of the construction of British self-perception and even self-esteem' (1) than to an understanding of African issues.

Harrison uses frame analysis to investigate the Africa campaign tradition, citing Oliver and Johnson1 on the way in which 'framing draws our attention towards the "shared assumptions and meanings that shape the interpretation of events" within a movement' (9). The introductory chapter 'Representing Africa', explains the main argument of this book, the Africa campaigns in Britain and the connections between Africa campaigning and the moral nature of Britishness. The author argues that the representations of Africa by campaign organisations have played a role in the construction of British social identities (2). Harrison claims that through the many ways to analyse the 'extremely diverse and multiplex' (4) nature of representation of Africa in Britain, the frame analysis commonly adopted by researchers interested in social movements studies, offers 'the most proximate and potentially insightful concepts' (9). He uses as an example the work of David Snow who has identified three kinds of frames: diagnostic, prognostic and motivational (10). He argues that campaign organisations are unique as 'they occupy a political terrain' (6) and they are 'key institutional mediators of the Africa presence' in Britain (9).

Chapter Two, 'Putting Images into (E)motion: Representing Africa through Suffering', shows how the image of suffering and famine has been the main representation of Africa in Britain, since 1960, and reflects on 'the emotional aspects of the famine image'. Harrison use Foucault’s notion of biopolitics (29) and the work of Agamben (32) and Nussbaum (34) as a means to understand the ways that we feel regarding the suffering, disaster and famine imagery surrounding Africa. Chapter Three, 'Africa-Britain: a Short History' offers a review of British-African interactions through history, from pre-modern encounters, through slavery, abolitionism and colonialism and up to decolonisation and post-colonialism, providing a context for the 'layering of the Africa campaign' (54) and showing how campaign representations can be used as a way to analyze changes in British national identity.

Chapter Four, 'Africa Campaign in the Framing: from Abolition to Make Poverty History' provides some 'analytical coordinates' on how Africa campaign organisations 'have come to rely upon a set of diagnostic, prognostic, and motivational framing' promoting a notion of virtuous Britishness (58). Table 4.1 (62) gives an insightful summary of the major campaign framing. Chapter Five, 'Africa and the Search of Britishness' reviews the major Africa campaigns (Abolition, Anti-apartheid, Jubilee 2000 and Make Poverty History) and shows a thread that 'carries each campaign', each being strongly based on a discourse of 'national grandeur' (96) based in a liberal Christian concern for Africa/Africans.

Chapter Six, 'Britishness and the search for Africa' focuses on specific historiographical aspects of representations of Africa in Britain from the early 1980s to the present day (101). Using disaster images (Biafra war, Ethiopian famine) he unpacks the three frames present in the charitable appeal: disaster imagery, human face imagery and one associated with consumption and branding. Harrison shows how in different periods campaign organisations havee used different strategies, cultural (celebrities) and political (lobbying). It also shows the role of some organisations such as Oxfam and their annual reports. Moreover, he discusses an important turning point, from disaster to positive images and the emergence of 'developmental Africa'(117).

Chapter Seven, 'Representing Africa through the Commodity' focuses on the current representation of Africa. It discuss the 'association between consumption and virtue' (132) explaining how understanding of consumerism sheds light on the 'commoditisation of campaigns' as 'the construction of Britain’s modern political culture was based in the spreading and depending of aesthetic consumption' (134). It shows how campaign organisations became 'increasingly aware of the importance of their institutional image', so that 'NGOs tended to manage themselves in ways that resembled the practices of profit-making organisations' (143). Chapter Eight 'The Year of Africa' explores in detail, through campaigns such as Make Poverty History, government, celebrity and media involvement in Africa campaigns, showing 'how Africa in its association with poverty became familiar to millions' (181).  Concluding its findings  with a critical perspective on representations of Africa in Britain and the ways in which a conception of British virtue is reinforced through these images, this book is an essential reading for anybody interested in the topics of the relation between Africa and Britain, African sovereignty, racism and post colonialism.

Juliana da Penha, Independent Scholar


1 P Oliver and H Johnstone, 'What a Good Idea! Ideologies and Frames in Social Movement Research', Mobilisation: an International Journal (2000) 4:1 pp 37-54