May 14, 2012
KAMPALA – The global media have rightly been criticized over the years for paying too little attention to Africa ‘s strengths and successes. War, poverty, disease, that’s all they mention, grumble the critics.
But of late coverage has begun to even out, with greater attention paid to the continent’s world-beating growth rates, greater stability and investment, and a global-minded business class choosing to stay or resettle in Africa instead of flee.
Page through any African section and you’re likely to be introduced to tech-savvy recent graduates wearing jeans in hip airy offices; stock traders checking commodity prices on mobile phones (of which there are more than in Europe and America); or African “lions” picking up where Asia’s “tigers” left off. Everyone by now has heard that six of the world’s fastest growing economies are African.
Welcome to the new Africa , we’re told, ready for take off.
Africa on the whole is emerging impressively from its “lost decades” of the 1980s and ‘90s. Whereas just three countries had multiparty systems in 1990, most are today. Only a handful of African nations are undergoing armed conflict. FDI’s long-term trend is upward, hitting $32 billion in 2010. Africa ’s strongmen are fewer. Earnst and Young estimates that Africa as a whole will grow 5% over the next decade – more than any other continent. Gender equality is growing.
But just as the global media tended to hype China ’s and India ’s prospects a few years ago only to discover as we are now that, no, neither is about to take over the world, the media have started overselling Africa as well.
Some recent examples:
Africa is undergoing an “economic boom.” (The Guardian)
“African lions outpace Asian tigers.” (The Guardian)
The “surprising success story of the last decade” has not been with BRICS but Africa. (The Economist)
“Africa’s] lion economies are earning a place alongside Asia’s tigers.” (The Economist)
“Africa is becoming the new China and India” (Newsweek)
“Africa is on the move” with “novelists and artists, film-makers and musicians, designers and stylists, all are thriving.” (Financial Times)
“A new renaissance dawns in Africa.” (letter headline, the East African)
The “ongoing boom makes Africa investors’ dream.” (Africa News Agency)
Africa’s middle class “is everywhere across the continent” and “here to stay.” (The New African)
“I believe we can now speak of an African century.” (Rajiv Sethi, Professor of Economics, Barnard College, Columbia University, writing on his blog)
A Coke commercial captures the spirit of “new” Africa. “There are a billion reasons to believe in Africa,” reads the screen, before contrasting a suffering world with a rising Africa: “While the world shakes and stumbles, Africa dances to a different beat; for every bank bailed out, 2 million Africans send money back home…while the world turns grey, we live in full color.”
Recent book titles include “ Africa ’s Moment,” “Africa Rising” and “Emerging Africa: How 17 countries are leading the way.” Hope and optimism, replacing gloom and doom, are the new catchwords.
“New” Africa is an attractive sell. As editors have told me over the years, readers are tired of hearing the same story coming out of Africa . Implied in this is that you can’t sell what people already know, and it helps explain why news space for Africa has shrunk over time. New Africa is about a miraculous triumph over a tragic past on the world’s last economic frontier, and that makes for what seems like vital reading.
New Africa is also politically correct and safe: It comes across as sensitive and uncondescending.
But in fact this hopeful marketable portrait represents a fraction of the real Africa, and conflating the two works to obscure the dangerous backward slide taking place across much of the continent.
The number of African democracies has declined from 24 to 19 since 2005, and many of those are democracies more in form than substance, with outright theft of state capital, intimidation, compromised judiciaries and patronage making it near impossible for opposition parties to compete – what Senegalese Professor Babacar Gueye calls “democracy without democrats.”
In most African countries, higher office is still largely pursued for personal wealth rather than national development, and with rising campaigning costs plunging candidates further into debt, the temptation of corruption only increases. Meanwhile many countries remain heavily dependent on donor dollars, further disincentivizing tax collection and good governance.
Primary school enrollment has risen in many countries, but quality of education has not kept pace and teacher absentee rates are as high as 25% in some countries. Many university graduates can’t find work, either because there aren’t enough jobs or their skills don’t meet market demands. Here in Uganda , home to East Africa’s top institution of higher learning, Makerere University and a growth rate of 8% over the last five years, youth unemployment is around 80%.
Trade in most African countries still mostly involves buying and selling of imports and commodities; manufacturing remains stunted amid a deluge of cheap Asian imports and a dearth in infrastructural inputs. Africa ’s infrastructural deficit sits at $93 billion per annum. Intra-Africa trade is at 10% – compared to 25% in Southeast Asia – while integrating plans like the East African Community remain stalled amid a shortage of expertise and political will.
Despite much media fuss about sub-Saharan Africa ’s expanding middle class, poverty has risen from 292 million in 1981 to 555 million in 2005, according to the World Bank, and many of them don’t pay taxes, putting excess strain on state resources. In Nigeria , which many analysts have picked to be a major hub in Africa ’s renaissance, poverty has doubled to 112 million over five years.
It’s no wonder then that much of the optimism the media are reporting on is not shared by most ordinary Africans – a fact reflected in the 5% drop in voter participation since 2007, according to the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, which measures good governance. Such detachment from the political process gives license to official abuse.
Nonetheless, Africa is showing more promise than any time since independence. Health and skills sets are improving. Birth rates are down (albeit from a high base). Technology is helping to some extent overcome physical infrastructure barriers and has spawned growth sectors like mobile banking. The African Union has been more pro-active in resolving disputes.
The media have a responsibility to chronicle this progress. But they should also provide context: whereas individual countries – such as Ghana , Rwanda and Kenya – are making enormous strides in areas like infrastructure and fighting corruption, they largely remain un-integrated dots on a continent still struggling to live up to expectations.
* A shortened version of this post ran on Monday’s New York Times’ website and in Tuesday’s print edition of the International Herald Tribune.