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August 2005
Making Poverty History: African Animation and Reality
By Mia MacDonald

The G-8 leaders have left Scotland and along with them the singers, activists and experts who all tabled proposals to make poverty history in Africa. The debate about African aid, debt and trade will continue, as it must. If the campaign is to succeed, new ideas, new actions and new actors are needed. Why not enlist Hollywood? Not through a handful of celebrities, but via its wildly successful animated films set in the wilderness of impoverished African countries.

Even as world leaders and pop stars were assembling for the G-8 and the Live 8 concerts, moviegoers were flocking to see DreamWorks SKG’s latest summer cartoon hit, Madagascar. In it, a quartet of animals from New York’s Central Park Zoo in search of adventure end up in Madagascar, an island country off the east coast of Africa.

Here, they encounter Nature in all its strange and compelling forms, including lemurs, small, wide-eyed primates found nowhere else on Earth. (Having separated from the African mainland millions of years ago, evolution in Madagascar produced a unique set of animals and plants.)

Despite mixed reviews, by the time you read this, the film’s U.S. box office will be hovering near $200 million; millions more will have been earned globally, where audiences, too, are lining up. If the past is prologue, Madagascar may well earn half a billion dollars around the world, not counting lucrative DVD sales and product tie-ins. The Lion King, an animated film set in East Africa, earned $750 million from ticket sales alone. Merchandise added millions more. In the context of Africa, these are small fortunes.

The irony is that as Hollywood makes a mint from cartoons with African landscapes, the real-life countries struggle to meet basic human needs and fund conservation programs to protect the endangered animals and habitat the films capitalize on. Madagascar is no exception. One of the world’s poorest countries, its government is unable to provide jobs, health care, education and clean water to its fast-growing population, let alone protect its environment.

Countries and species can’t (yet) trademark their names or images to harness their profit potential. They still have to depend on the goodwill of strangers—or responsible corporations. What if DreamWorks bought in, and invested a percentage of Madagascar’s box office and merchandise revenues in ventures to support human development and conservation programs in Madagascar? That would be big coming from a company that made well over one billion dollars in net revenue last year—more than one-fifth of the gross domestic product of Madagascar.

Nearly half of Madagascar’s population is under 15 years of age—a prime audience for Madagascar. But with over 70 percent of Madagascar’s population surviving on less than $1 a day, a movie ticket (never mind a small popcorn) is largely out of reach. The average individual income is less than $300 a year.

This poverty is putting pressure on Madagascar’s famed “spiny forests,” home to species who “star” in Madagascar. Industrial development, traditional “slash and burn” agriculture that consumes more and more land as the population grows (it is rising fast), and the heavy reliance on wood for fuel are all taking a toll on Madagascar’s forests and animals.

Madagascar has brightened DreamWorks’ profit projections, but Madagascar is guaranteed no similar pay-off. News reports variously suggest that the country’s tourist agency is unsure of how to capitalize on its new (and perhaps fleeting) fame and lacks funds to do so, or that it’s readying new tourism campaigns and already seeing tour bookings rise. But tourists are fickle. Madagascar may lose out, even as Madagascar cashes in.

Along with other African countries, Madagascar is under pressure from donor nations to wean itself from aid by developing new enterprises and welcoming private investment from overseas. In addition, when international lending agencies demand that poor countries tighten their belts, environment-related budgets are often the first to feel the ax.

Given the world’s appetite for nature-themed cartoons this could mean millions of dollars for a desperately poor country—with little dent in DreamWorks’ bottom line. Another bonus: plaudits from anti-poverty and environmental campaigners.

If this idea gains traction, it could mean goodwill on a scale akin to the millions raised for African famine relief 20 years ago by Live Aid, Live 8’s precursor. In tune with the times, there’s a pragmatic element, too, for DreamWorks and other studios to consider. If poor countries with rich biodiversity continue to lose the animals and landscapes that so delight the rest of the world, Hollywood studios could be stumped.

Films like Madagascar would no longer offer audiences a tantalizing world that could be visited, but rather a brightly colored version of what’s already become history. Not only film-goers will feel the loss.

Mia MacDonald is a policy analyst and writer based in Brooklyn who works on issues of gender, environment, development, population and rights internationally. She is also a long-time animal activist whose trip to Madagascar, for work, was cancelled in 2003 due to the civil conflict. She’s hoping to get there soon(ish).



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