To be fair to the NGOs, Gelfand says, “It’s easier to sell a famine than to effect real, common-sense policy change.” And, she says, she continues to believe that most aid workers do what they do because they want to make a difference. Nonetheless, “A lot of what Oxfam does is to sustain Oxfam.”

Stories featuring aid projects often rely on dubious numbers provided by the organizations. Take Kibera, a poor neighborhood in Nairobi. A Nexis search of major world publications found Kibera described as the “biggest” or “largest” slum in Africa at least thirty-four times in 2004; in the first ten months of 2010 the claim appeared eighty-three times. Many of those stories focused on the work of one of the estimated 6,000 or more local and international NGOs working there, and cited population figures that ranged as high as one million residents. Recently, however, the results of Kenya’s 2009 census were released: according to the official tally, Kibera has just 194,269 residents.

In 2010, Rasna Warah wrote in the Daily Nation, a Kenyan paper, that while working for the Worldwatch Institute, an NGO, she had published inflated population estimates using UN-Habitat data, despite knowing there was no consensus on the numbers among her former colleagues at the organization. Sometime after 2004, she wrote, population estimates for Kibera started to rise, and “Before we knew it, the figure spread like a virus.” She added, “The inflated figures were not challenged, perhaps because they were useful to various actors…. They were particularly useful to NGOs, which used them to ‘shock’ charities and other do-gooders into donating more money to their projects in Kibera.”

Questionable figures of another sort are to be found in reports on the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, a series of targets on poverty reduction and other measures of well-being. UN and NGO officials routinely describe Africa as failing to meet the goals, and the press routinely writes up this failure.

But some experts, among them Jan Vandemoortele, one of the architects of the MDGS, have expressed concern that the goals are being misused. He wrote in 2009 that the MDGS were intended as global targets, but have been improperly applied to individual countries and regions. “It is a real tragedy when respectable progress in Africa is reported as a failure by international organizations and external observers,” Vandemoortele wrote, voicing the suspicion that particular measurements have been selected “so as to present Africa as a failure, solely to gain support for a particular agenda, strategy, or argument.”

Nonetheless, when the UN met in September, The Associated Press quoted UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon as saying, “Many countries are falling short, especially in Africa,” while the Los Angeles Times quoted an Oxfam report as saying, “Unless an urgent rescue package is developed to accelerate fulfillment of all the MDGS, we are likely to witness the greatest collective failure in history.”

The consequences of skewed or incomplete reporting on Africa are not just a disservice to readers but also have the potential to influence policy. “The welfare model [of Africa] is still dominant on the Hill and in Hillary Clinton’s world,” according to van de Walle. Among corporate officials, says Catherine Duggan, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School, the perception is still that “Africa is where you put your money once you’ve made it somewhere else.”

Moreover, such reporting is demoralizing to Africans working for change. Martin Dawes, a unicef regional chief of communication for West and Central Africa, says that when there is a disaster, journalists “come to us as aid workers but often don’t talk to the government, which is often what we’re working through. It means that the chances for Africans to show an engaged response is limited. They are written out of their own story.”

Even with shrinking resources, journalists can do better than this. For a start, they can stop depending so heavily, and uncritically, on aid organizations for statistics, subjects, stories, and sources. They can also educate themselves on how to find and interpret data available from independent sources. And they can actively seek out stories that deviate from existing story lines.

Karen Rothmyer ( has lived in Kenya since 2007. Starting in April she will be a visiting fellow at Cambridge University, researching the value of news ombudsman.