What Aid Does to a Country's Image

By Carey, Sean | New African, August-September 2010 | Go to article overview

What Aid Does to a Country's Image


Carey, Sean, New African


Simon Anholt is an independent policy adviser who developed the concepts of "nation brand" and "place brand" over a decade ago. Nowadays, he specialises in analysing the cultural perceptions of nations, cities and regions, and working out the implications for public diplomacy and international relations. In 2009, he was awarded the Nobels Colloquia Prize for Economics. Here he talks to Sean Carey about brands and marketing, charity and international aid, and Brand Africa, and asserts that: "... We have failed to see what a double-edged sword aid is for its recipients: we give with one hand and take away with the other."

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Q: First of all, could you explain what is meant by the "nation brand" concept?

A: Places depend on their international standing as never before: the way they are perceived by people around the world has a direct impact on their ability to export products, services, ideas, culture and people, and their ability to attract investment, tourists and talent. So it's very important for governments to understand how national reputation is formed, and how and why it changes.

This is why I coined the phrase "nation brand" back in 1998. But the phrase I didn't coin was "nation branding", which seems to contain a promise that if a country doesn't like its reputation, it can manipulate it using the techniques of marketing. This promise is a lie. Places are judged by what they do and what they make, not by what they say about themselves. So "nation branding" is a wicked waste of taxpayers' money, and shouldn't be tolerated.

Q: So enhancing the reputation of countries is a fundamentally different enterprise compared to the marketing of commercial goods and services?

A: Yes. If you're marketing commercial goods or services, it's an essentially honest and straightforward process: you're offering people a product or a service and using advertising to tell them "buy this, it's good". But places aren't for sale, and the underlying message is "please change your mind about this country".

We all know what that is: it's state propaganda, and it can't work in our modern, globalised world because every message is always challenged, and nobody is paying attention anyway! Using advertising for marketing tourism or investment or export promotion, by contrast, is entirely different because you are selling a product or service to people who might be interested in buying it,

Q: Last year in an effort to combat negative perceptions, Nigeria rebranded itself with the slogan, "Good People, Great Nation". You're not a fan of this sort of endeavour. Why not?

A: Because it cheapens and vulgarises countries, reducing their complexity and richness to the level of a childish, superficial stereotype. It's insulting to their culture, to their history, to their geography, and above all to their populations. It excludes all the people and organisations that don't happen to fit the slogan: it's a kind of fascism, like all marketing. And it makes the country look naive and desperate. Products can be reduced to a "unique selling point" but places can't. Any government that tries to do this is guilty of an act of cultural aggression against its own population.

Q: In the past, you have been critical of international celebrities like Bob Geldof and Bono because you felt that their charitable activities have had a negative effect on Africa's reputation.

A: Of course. I have always stressed that I didn't want to criticise the good intentions or the good results that such celebrities--and the hundreds of donor governments and NGOs alongside them--have achieved over the decades. Their work is essential and they are to be praised. I just think that we have failed to see what a double-edged sword aid is for its recipients: we give with one hand and take away with the other. We provide much-needed money but in order to ensure the continued supply of that money from donors and taxpayers, we set about professionally degrading the image of the recipient country. …

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