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by Hans Dembowski

Misleading language in a German high-profile publication

Sometimes one wrong sentence makes an otherwise good essay useless. Frankfurter Allgemeine Woche, a weekly version of Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), Germany’s leading conservative daily, recently made such mistakes in its coverage of global development issues.

Frankfurter Allgemeine Woche is a high-profile magazine. Its stories read well, and they tend to be well researched too. I read it sometimes, but not regularly. Yesterday, I read last weeks issue. It included two long items that dealt with Africa. Both were flawed by small, but highly relevant inaccuracies. These inaccuracies matter because they reinforce the world view of right-wing populists in Germany.

The first essay was Philip Plickert‘s “Problemfall Afrika” (which means: Africa, a problem case). It accurately argues that, while the rich are getting richer internationally, the poor are not getting poorer and that their share of the world population is even declining. It also correctly notes that other world regions have been making faster progress than Africa, and that Africa lacks employment opportunities for masses of young people. These points are all valid.

Unfortunately, Plickert’s first paragraph included fake news. It stated that, “while people in rich countries are having fewer children, the number is ever increasing in poor countries.” This is nonsense. Birth rates are declining in all developing world regions. In 1960, women in sub-Saharan Africa used to have 6.6 children on average in 1960. The comparative figure for 2015 was 4.9. That is what World Bank statistics reveal. Yes, population growth is a serious problem, but no, birth rates are not going up. On average, Africans are much younger than Europeans – and more of the women are of child-bearing age. This is an important driver of population growth.

I know, humans make mistakes, and inaccuracies happen. As the editor of D+C/E+Z, I know that our publication is not perfect. The problem with declaring that African women are having ever more babies, however, is that it fits the propaganda of the AfD, Germany’s right-wing party. One of its leaders, Björn Höcke, has publicly expressed his worries concerning reproduction patterns in Africa. The term he used was “afrikanischer Ausbreitungstyp”, which basically means that Africans proliferate in order to conquer more territory. Such propaganda is obviously racist poison. Höcke’s  terrible message, however, was seemingly endorsed in the first paragraph of an otherwise enlightening essay. Perhaps this was done unwittingly, but ideologically relevant mistakes are the ones journalist must do most to avoid. (Update one hour after first posting: I have been in touch with the author. He states that he meant the absolute number of children and was not referring to birth rates. I accept that he did not mean to spread racist propaganda, but I insist that his wording was poor and misleading. If an author discusses the number of children people are having, it does suggest he is thinking of individual women, not the aggregate number.)

The second article was by Kurt Gerhardt and dealt with Niger. This is a desperately poor, landlocked country. Gerhardt’s headline was “Ein Bild des Jammers” (a picture of misery). He elaborated on how members of Niger’s government live in luxury while masses of people are stuck in poverty. As far as I can tell, the picture Gerhardt paints is probably realistic.

There is a snag, of course. The essay’s lead paragraph states that lack of foreign money is not the reason of poverty in vast parts of Africa, and that “official development assistance is indeed part of the problem”.  The irony is that the essay argues the economic situation is better in Ethiopia, Rwanda and Ghana. Gerhard praises these countries for dynamism and healthy attitudes to governance. Ethiopia, Rwanda and Ghana, however, have been recipients of massive aid flows in the past two decades. Obviously, ODA was not part of the problem there.

It is irritating that Frankfurter Allgemeine Woche uses the example of Niger, a particularly poor country, to suggest that aid is adding to problems everywhere, only to go on and praise countries where aid has proved helpful without mentioning this important fact.

On the other hand, the paper fails to point out that donor interest in Niger has recently grown. The reason is that donor governments hope that tighter border controls in Niger might reduce the number of refugees who try to get to Europe. Niger, after all, is a transit country. Some aid money flowing to Niger is thus meant to serve primarily European interests.

Oh, and it would of course been worth mentioning that the EU is in favour of regional integration, linking national economies to form larger markets. Regional integration, of course, is about opening borders, not controlling them more strictly. ODA policies are indeed sometimes full of contradictions. Frankfurter Allgemeine Woche did not make readers aware of this one.

Let me end by stating that I found other items in last week’s edition of Frankfurter Allgemeine Woche very good. The coverage of US trade policy was spot on, and an interview with Aiman Mazyek, who chairs the association of Muslims in Germany, was excellent. The topic was hate crimes, and Mazyek deserves to be heard on that matter.  


Update 19 March: I've just changed the head line. I still feel that Frankfurter Allgemeine has been spreading fake news, but have been in touch with both authors, and my core criticism is that what they wrote is misleading. I haven't changed the fake news argument in the blogpost, since I think it makes sense, but I want our headlines to focus on the main issue. This is not the kind of fake news that is invented to manipulate people and than multiplied by internet bots, so one might argue that my earlier headline accusing FAW of fake news was misleading.

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