The problem with Africa

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When I was growing up in Copenhagen, my mother had a three row Peugeot station wagon to accommodate six children and two dogs. After twenty years and about 300,000 miles and countless overhauls and repairs, it was time to let go. The beloved chariot, apparently no longer reparable or useful, was left at a junk yard to be shipped to Africa. There, we were told, it would be used as a cab. This story of our car turned cab in Africa has intrigued me for the past twenty years. With no details of the car’s whereabouts, its final destiny still strikes me as fascinating. Someone in Africa had the ingenuity to resurrect our car and use it for a purpose. This, indeed, is a story of hope. Unfortunately, we rarely hear such stories when we hear about Africa.

The western media tends to report mostly negative stories about the African continent and highlights the outrageous and dramatic aspects of life in Africa. Most of the images that come to mind when we think of Africa are those of starvation, disease, brutal conflict, and child soldiers. According to the media, Africa seems like a continent in ruins, beyond hope. The story of Africa has turned into a single narrative of misery and inspiring stories of success and hope are rare. Much of this negative presentation of Africa has to do with the needs of NGOs to raise funds for their projects and for what has been termed the “White Savior Industrial Complex.” (Cole, 2012) To any charitable organization vying for funds, bad news tends to be good for business. Similarly, the United Nation’s “Millennium Development Goals,” devised in 2000 to define a series of targets on poverty reduction, tend to be misused, with Africa routinely described as falling short.

Journalists regularly depend on the evaluations made by such non-governmental entities and aid officials and have thus actively contributed to the creation of African stereotyping. Simultaneously, they have contributed to what has been termed “development pornography,” a type of reporting that relies on sensationalism and provides perverse enjoyment from viewing other people’s suffering. The only positive image of Africa that surfaces is that of luxurious safaris with fascinating wildlife, natural wonders, and exotic tribal traditions. The proud Masai of Tanzania and Kenia are generally admired with cultural curiosity for the archaic and colorful. Modern day Africans, on the other hand, don’t fare so well and tend to be viewed with pity and paternalism by westerners. Prevalent stereotypes of Africans as dependent on western charity and perpetually caught in cycles of violence strip Africans of their dignity and humanity. Such stereotypes call into question Africans’ ability to exercise agency, and lead to racial prejudice. (Quist-Adade and van Wyk, 2007, A. Baker, 2015) According to the Brookings Institution’s Africa Report of 2016, Western media heavily reported on Ebola (ranked number five in frequency) in 2015 while business came in 38th place.

There’s no denying it. Many parts of Africa are marred by poverty, disease, and violent conflicts. The number of people whose income falls below the poverty line of $1.25 per day is believed to remain constant in the upcoming years at around 400 million. (L. Chandy, Brookings) The majority of Africans still lack access to clean water and electricity. Corruption seems to endanger any hope for progress. According to Transparency International, Africa loses about 25 percent of its GDP (about $148 billion) to corruption and secret bank accounts every year. And much of the aid that the West generously provides will often end up in the wrong hands. The aid funds that reach the people on the ground frequently contribute to a cycle of dependence and debt. None of this will seem surprising to the casual observer of western media coverage of Africa.

However, Africa is not a homogenous entity, but, rather a vast continent made up of 54 diverse countries covering an area as large as India and China combined. Famines and armed conflicts typically only affect particular regions. Africa’s middle class is now larger than that of India with the middle class of Sub-Saharan Africa having tripled in the last thirty years. (Deloitte and Touche) The World Bank predicts that the number of Africans whose incomes exceed their basic needs will rise to 43 million by 2030, from just 13 million in 2000. The Sub-Saharan economy has been growing at an average rate of 5 percent in the last twenty years.

Furthermore, its economic potential is enormous. The continent holds immense natural treasures that promise of immense riches and could help build infrastructure if mined responsibly (Africa accounts for about 30% of all global mineral reserves). Africa also has the largest arable land mass in the world. Furthermore, the continent faces immense power supply challenges, which present a huge private sector opportunity to invest in the regions’ power infrastructure.

What Africa needs more than anything is confidence in its potential and its people. Above all, we should recognize Africans as agents of change and largely in control of their own destiny. Africa will not attract much needed foreign investment to improve its infrastructure and create economic opportunities as long as the Western media portrays the continent as hopeless and devoid of potential and opportunity, its inhabitants as generally dependent and powerless victims.

The media could do much to enable such positive relationships by painting a more colorful picture of African reality that includes localized stories of hope and success, enabling us to relate to African societies in a more personal way and to Africans according to universal commonalities, and thus pave the way for real social and economic engagement. According to Alain de Botton in The News: A User’s Manual, “the problem is that the reporting methodologies developed by the modern news media – which privilege factually accurate , technologically speedy, impersonal, crisis-focused coverage to the near exclusion of any other kind –  have led to a sort of globalized provincialism, whereby we at once know a good deal and don’t care about very much; whereby a little knowledge of the wrong kind has managed to narrow rather than expand the compass of our curiosity.” To overcome the paternalistic impulse and engage positively with the many different populations that make up Africa, we need positive and localized stories.

I personally own a cow in the Democratic Republic of Congo given to me as a sign of gratitude for a favor. In Congolese culture it is a great honor to receive such a gift and it binds the giver and receiver in everlasting friendship and loyalty. It is my hope for America and Africa that their people will similarly forge relationships of mutual trust and collaboration. It would be a great loss to America to not recognize the many threads that bind us as human beings and to help unlock the great social and economic potential that African countries present. Rather than as Joseph Conrad’s “heart of darkness,” we must learn to see Africa as a “light of the future.”

Tina McCormick is Publisher of the NewBostonPost. Read her past columns here