You might suppose that Vogue magazine would have learned to be a lot more careful about its cover stories, after the landmark outrage of its February, 2011 cover spread lauding Syria’s Asma al-Assad, wife of the dictator.
Who can forget that cover story? Profiling Asma as “A Rose in the Desert,” writer Joan Juliet Buck gushed on and on about Asma, first lady of Syria: “glamorous, young and very chic — the freshest and most magnetic of first ladies.” Vogue treated its readers to a tour of Asma’s “wildly democratic” life with her husband, Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, and described Asma as leading a down-home life of style and good works, answering the door of the presidential residence herself, “in jeans and old suede stilleto boots,” and rushing around, “breezy, conspiratorial and fun,” accessorized with little more than her Chanel agates and a Syrian-silk Louboutin handbag.
It was all about rebranding Syria’s regime as open, modern, classy. Asma, according to Vogue, was on a campaign to promote what she called Syria’s “brand essence.”
The month after Vogue ran that cover story, Syria’s people rose in open protest against the Assad regime — protest that has now gone on for 14 months, to which the regime has responded with hideous violence, shelling, shooting, jailing, and torturing, with a death toll now topping 10,000. During these horrors, as we now know from leaked emails, Asma whiled away some of her time with high-end online shopping.
Now, in a more subtle manner, comes another Vogue exercise in branding — this one featuring United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon on the May cover of Italian Vogue. In this case, unlike that of Syria’s regime, there is at least some reasonable justification for the advertised aim — which is “rebranding Africa.” Reportedly, L’Uomo Vogue is trying to create a better image for Africa’s more successful ventures, calling attention in an accompanying press release to “a positive side to the continent.”
Fair enough. But in that case, why on earth is Ban Ki-Moon the cover celebrity for this issue focused on the better side of Africa? In an article on this latest bout of Vogue creativity, the Guardian suggests that Ban is such a big draw — interviewed by Italian Vogue editor Franca Sozzani — that his starring appearance suggests Vogue is serious about giving Africa a boost.
The problem isn’t simply that Ban is South Korean, not African (though to be fair, at least Vogue didn’t resort to interviewing Ghanaian former secretary-general Kofi Annan, who, in his current role as a UN-Arab League envoy to Syria, is now capping a long career of failures with yet another).
The bigger problem here is that whatever success Africa is enjoying, most of it has either come about despite the UN, or has almost nothing to do with the UN. The UN’s history in Africa is abysmal — littered with such miseries as peacekeeper rape, corrupt procurement processes, and aid and development programs that too often legitimize, enrich, and support the same governments whose repressive policies keep people poor.
Did anyone at Vogue notice that right up to the moment when the Libyan people rose up in 2011 against Qaddafi, the UN behaved as one of his biggest fans? Specifically, the UN seated Qaddafi’s Libyan regime on the Security Council, made one of Qaddafi’s henchmen the president of the General Assembly, welcomed Libya to the Human Rights Council, appointed a daughter of Qaddafi as a goodwill ambassador for the UN’s flagship agency, the UN Development Program; and Ban Ki-Moon himself journeyed to Libya in 2010, for an African Union summit at which he glad-handed Qaddafi and was photographed yukking it up with the tyrant over dinner.
As for Vogue’s urge to publicize success stories in African development, maybe it’s time that someone on the staff at least eyeballed the work of NYU economist William Easterly. He makes a compelling case that “most sustained and largest surges in GDP per capita development (notably Botswana and Mauritius in Africa, as well as the East Asian tigers elsewhere, and more recently India and China) have been largely homegrown rather than the result of ambitious outside aid and intervention” (for this conclusion, scroll down to page 107 in his paper, “Can the West Save Africa?”). Easterly points to the likelihood that “the ones most likely to ‘save Africa’ are the Africans themselves.”
That makes a lot more sense than Italian Vogue’s patronizing implication on its cover that the UN, as personified by Ban Ki-Moon, is the author of African development. Surely there are Africans to be found who deserve the real credit. Of course, putting them on the cover, instead of “rebranding” Africa with the face of Ban Ki-Moon, might not inspire articles in British newspapers, or sell as many copies of Italian Vogue. And that would be a real pity for a publication still trying to live down its U.S. edition’s 2011 excitement over “Asma al-Assad: A Rose in the Desert.”