Maternal death rates in the Globe and Mail

With thanks to Mary, Queen of Thoughts, I give you this image from Monday's Globe and Mail:
After talking to MQoT (one of my BFFs IRL!!!), I want to add a bit to her commentary. (Only to extend, not to contradict.)

First, as she and I discussed, it's mind-boggling to use only two colour gradations here. I realize that this map comes from a G&M special issue dealing with Africa, and so it makes sense to foreground issues of African maternal health. I also realize that there are some substantial debates going on at present about the inclusion of contraception and abortion in the current G8 initiative. The G&M has historically been a Liberal-identified paper, so it makes sense that they'd foreground this highly partisan issue at this point.

By using only two colour gradations, this map gives the impression that Africa is much, much worse off than all of the rest of the world (with the apparent exceptions of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Vietnam, and Bangladesh, if I'm reading this right).

Let's contrast this to some other representations. First, I'll include this diagram from ChartsBin (click for an interactive version):

This diagram uses progressive gradations of colour. It still shows that the maternal mortality rates in most of Africa are really elevated, but it also shows that there are elevated rates in parts of South America and southeast Asia that aren't accounted for in the G&M version. The WHO site includes a less attractively nuanced colour scale, but gives a similar impression.

Again, by setting the numbers differently -- and, crucially, by including multiple gradations of colour -- this map makes it clear that there are regions of Africa that are comparable to regions of South America and Asia in terms of maternal mortality. It also shows that Canada, Australia, and Western Europe have lower maternal mortality rates, clarifying that these areas are substantially more privileged than much of the world. And it makes a distinction between countries with higher rates of maternal mortality. Setting the threshold for BRIGHT RED at 300 deaths per 100 000 live births makes it impossible to see that there are big differences between regions and countries in the continent.

But -- perhaps that's the point. Africa is still the continent that we love to talk about in terms of sweeping generalizations that efface the substantial differences between its regions and nations, as many have pointed out. It is indeed the only continent that it's still acceptable to discuss in sweepingly generalized terms. While the G&M "special issue" on Africa might be well intentioned -- and I haven't read the print version, so won't venture a guess on that -- the basic effect of a diagram like this one is to reinforce the popularly imagined version of the continent as a unified, uniformly Othered place of disaster and suffering. There are major social justice and humanitarian issues to be considered in relation to the continent, and I'm willing to concede that many of those are out of proportion to what's experienced in the rest of the world. I object, however, to the Globe's sensationalized, uncritical depiction of the continent. If their goal was to explore a serious humanitarian issue with attention to economic, geopolitical, and cultural issues, they've failed. If their goal was to make Sub-Saharan Africa look like a pool of blood, however, I guess they've hit the mark.


Queen of Thoughts said...

Look how much more factually interesting the map from the WHO is! Not only do we have something with which to compare the 300 deaths per 100 000, but we also see how much worse (than 300) the situation is in certain African countries (e.g. Angola, Nigeria.)

Thanks for articulating my disgust!

cancrit(at)gmail.com said...

EXACTLY. It's much, much more informative. I mean, there's a big, big difference between 300/100 000 and 1800/100 000. Some countries DO have rates that high, and it's dishonest to ignore that.