Clear Eyed on Africa

08.09.14

Why the US-Africa Summit Was Important and Why It Wasn't Enough

If America really wants to help Africa grow with trade and investment, it needs to ditch a number of stereotypes it still holds.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
It was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.

Those words penned by Charles Dickens about the period leading up to the French Revolution seem quite applicable to Africa today on the heels of the first-ever U.S.-Africa Summit. The Summit rightly focused primarily on the “spring of hope” being experienced by many in Africa’s burgeoning middle and upper classes, fueled by impressive economic growth data and lucrative trade and investment opportunities in a continent which hosts six of the ten fastest growing economies in the world. But life remains truly a “winter of despair” for the millions of hungry, impoverished, displaced, and conflict-affected people who don’t fit easily into the “Africa Rising” narrative being burnished around Washington this week.

The Summit had many objectives: increasing trade and investment between the U.S. and Africa; delivering messages about the critical need for better governance; showing strong support for African civil society’s contribution to state-building; the list could go on and on.  And there was important progress made on a number of these goals.  But underlying all this was a more general and ambitious aspiration: to change the narrative about Africa from that of a basket case to a land of opportunity.

Americans’ perceptions of Africa remain rooted in troubling stereotypes of helplessness and perpetual crisis. Therefore, the Summit’s focus on positive trends on the continent is crucial to beginning to re-calibrate the story of Africa to one more balanced between progress and setbacks. But addressing that “winter of despair” should not reinforce the inaccurate perceptions.

There are three ways to counter the negative stereotypes when dealing with African crises that avoid the “heart of darkness” trap of hopelessness that so many commentators fall into. First, it is critical to acknowledge the centrality of Africa’s leadership in crisis response. The view remains prevalent that Africans need to be saved from themselves. But in most emergencies, anyone taking a closer look would find that misconception countered by the reality of African leadership. Africans are on the front lines of humanitarian efforts, distributing life-saving aid in dangerous environments. Africans comprise the vast majority of peacekeepers in civil conflict on that continent. Africans for the most part lead peace negotiations for the wars being fought in Africa.  Africans are the park rangers protecting the elephants and other wildlife from violent criminal poaching networks. And Africans are the health care workers caring for those stricken with epidemic diseases like the Ebola crisis threatening West Africa today.

Underlying all this was a more general and ambitious aspiration: to change the narrative about Africa.

Most Americans wouldn’t know this because those interviewed on most news programs (when such issues are even covered) are from the United States, as producers usually feel that Americans need someone from America to provide context, an anomaly that doesn’t seem to extend to coverage of Europe, Latin America, or Asia.

A second way to counter the negative stereotypes when dealing with African crises is to present the “spring of hope” even while addressing the “winter of despair.” Most Americans may not realize that the news they consume is driven in part by the media mantra, “if it bleeds, it leads.” So how would most Americans know about the political and economic progress that many African countries are experiencing? The movie “Blood Diamond” is widely known, but few know the country in which that war primarily took place, Sierra Leone, is today at peace, democratizing, and growing its economy steadily.

A third way to counter the negative stereotypes is to provide a bit of comparative historical context. Most Americans wouldn’t necessarily realize that African countries are five or six decades old as independent nation-states. Most Americans wouldn’t make the connection that it took centuries of savage wars and genocide in Europe to settle on the borders of modern nation states like Italy, France and Germany. And Americans also might not remember all that was happening when the U.S. was a 60-year-old independent nation-state: comprehensive ethnic cleansing of Native Americans; a massive transatlantic slave trade fueling economic growth; and widening of schisms that eventually led to the American civil war, one of the deadliest conflicts in human history in per capita terms.

Africa is going through its own historical process of state formation just as Europe and America did. It is just happening much later than other continents because of the interruption of Africa’s own historical development by the colonization of Africa by Europe.

In sum, there are indeed places where conflict-fueled mass atrocities are worsening, such as South Sudan, Sudan, and the Central African Republic. And there are trends in Africa that are very encouraging, especially on the economic front. But there is a way to talk about the diversity of Africa without either wearing rose-colored glasses or reinforcing insulting stereotypes. It is the best of times and the worst of times in Africa, and there are complex and important reasons why both are simultaneously true.

John Prendergast is the Founding Director of the Enough Project, which focuses on countering genocide and other human rights crimes.