Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Schizophrenic Africa: With which Africa do you identify?

According to Choice Ufuoma Okoro (writing in The Citizen of Dar es Salaam), four competing visions of Africa are battling to define the continent’s image on the international stage.

The first image portrays the continent as a humanitarian emergency, where an infusion foreign aid is mandatory to “save Africans from specific diseases, self-inflicted violence, dictators and poverty.”

The second Africa remains popular among African presidents: The United Africa – thanks to NEPAD – and some help from their friends at the G8.

The third Africa creates the continent from the bottom-up, where community-based citizenship directs national priorities and fighting poverty through a focus on grass roots governance.

Finally, the fourth vision of Africa is in the realm of business: Preparing Africa to become an economic force in the 21st century. This vision is not only pro-business, but at odds with the begging Africa of the first vision. “For proponents of this vision, aid and charity has failed and Africa's quest for economic sustainability can only be realised through foreign direct investments and export opportunities,” Okoro writes.

The problem is while most Africans are living in the continent of the United Africa (vision number two) and the third (the grassroots Africa), most Westerners are sold by the idea of a hopeless little Africa out on the street with a cup in its hand for begging. This image, Okoro says, drown out the positive forces of the African business community, where stock markets are soaring, Botswana has an A+ credit rating and the continent enjoys one of the highest per capita government savings rates all over.

Thus, Africa must re-brand itself, not as the continent of disease, violence and poverty, but as an emerging economic powerhouse.

Okoro continues:

In a world where a nation's economic success lies in its competitive advantage in the global economy, international image (perception) and branding rules, drives and direct.

Africa must embrace this reality unapologetically and step up for its citizens' sake. Many nations in Africa are rising to this challenge, but national efforts continue to be subsumed by the regional (Africa) negative image.

If you had to ask me -- and you certainly don't -- my guess is that I adhere to a little bit of each Africa. A multitude of problems, yes, face the continent, but countries have in place some of the means to tackle them, whether at the local, regional and international level. Presently, the international folks hold sway in the decision making process and their vision of Africa has certainly captured the imagination of the international public.

I'd like to be more optimistic about the power business has, but I can't muster much confidence up. (At least not around here.) As is the case elsewhere, business has the greatest potential to displace the NGO industrial complex in Africa. (Of course, business leaders would have to behave themselves.)

My problem with arguments like these is they give too much authority to NGOs and the international media. No matter how poorly Africa is portrayed elsewhere, how should that affect the work done by Africans? It shouldn't. Africans themselves understand how their continent works, and that should be good enough. If done right, the rest of the world will catch up.

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