Africa in the Spotlight

By Michael Keating, February 28, 2010

Photo courtesy of Michael Keating

Photo courtesy of Michael Keating

Africa will be in the spotlight in 2010. The World Cup will draw more international journalists to the continent than ever before. In countries with teams that have qualified, the coverage has already started, and not just on the sports pages.

Africa will be in the spotlight in 2010. The World Cup will draw more international journalists to the continent than ever before. In countries with teams that have qualified, the coverage has already started, and not just on the sports pages.

Development campaigners are gearing up to catch the media wave and draw attention to their issues, messages and organizations. Events related to everything from malaria, girls’ education, microcredit, maternal health, clean water and climate change are planned, with footballers, film and rock stars, politicians and personalities recruited to the cause.

The question many Africans are asking is whether all this exposure will challenge or just confirm negative stereotyping of their continent, particularly in the western media.

Africa’s image with the general public in many countries is unfortunate, to say the least. Africa is associated with hunger and poverty, corruption, violence, machine-gun touting men in reflective sunglasses, and giraffes silhouetted against a sinking sun, often with Mount Kilimanjaro in the background.

This image is both inaccurate and counterproductive, both for Africans and for the countries where it holds.

Inaccurate because the facts do not support it. Over the last decade, African economic growth rates have outstripped the rest of the world’s, barring China. Foreign direct investment, trade and domestic revenues have doubled and in some cases tripled; the number of wars and numbers of people killed in wars have decreased; and the number of democracies increased.

Yes, this progress has been unevenly spread and is often fragile. Ongoing conflicts in the Horn and central Africa, piracy off Somalia, coups in Guinea-Bissau, Niger and Madagascar, and violence and repression in Kenya and Zimbabwe are serious blots on the African political landscape, not least for the populations who suffer as a result. They also tend to dominate international news coverage.

But the larger picture of steady progress holds. This is borne out by the non-realisation of doomsters’ fears that the global financial crisis of 2008 would expose Africa’s fragility and result in a massive increase in political instability, violence and poverty.

Governments struggled with canceled projects, collapsed commodity prices, reduced income from trade, higher costs of borrowing and inability to maintain basic services just as their citizens needed them most.

And people, hundreds of millions of them, particularly women, have suffered, as jobs and revenues have been lost. Poverty, infant and maternal mortality rates and schools enrolment and completion data will confirm the heavy price paid by ordinary Africans for irresponsibility in Wall Street and the City.

But the worst fears have not been realized, in part because African governments took concerted action to maintain macro-economic and fiscal stability. They made the case for increased access, on less onerous terms, to capital from the international financial institutions such as the IMF. The African Development Bank is now predicting a return to rapid economic growth rates of 5 – 7% from next year.

The issue now is whether Africa can continue to attract capital and investment and, crucially, to convert the revenues from resource exploitation and trade into benefits for its people. That depends upon having the capacity and political will to strengthen management and governance, to fight corruption and improve transparency in both the public and private sectors.

Corruption is clearly a major problem – though Africa is still fairly amateur at it compared to other parts of the world. Africans have to put up with widespread petty corruption to get things done, and there are too many examples of dictators and their sons living in intercontinental luxury while their citizens struggle to survive.

But again, the facts, dull as they sometimes are, tell a different story. The Mo Ibrahim Index on African Governance, the most comprehensive attempt to capture the quality of political and economic accountability in Africa, shows a steadily improving picture, as does the World Bank’s ‘Ease of Doing Business’ ranking, with improvements being made in commercial law, property rights and investor protection.

There is clearly a long way to go to improve governance; the good news is that an increasingly assertive African middle class is showing signs of being fed up with corruption and the greed of politicians.

Africa’s image in the western media is thus counterproductive. It is Africa’s potential, not her problems, that is of growing interest to much of the world – and certainly to her own entrepreneurs.

And some major global trends are playing in Africa’s favour – including the shift or, some would say, rebalancing of global economic power from the West to the East and South. Growing concerns about climate change, the need for clean energy sources and carbon sinks are also making Africa’s vast natural resources strategically more important.

The Chinese get it (their trade with Africa grew from $6.5 billion to $107 billion in the ten years to 2008), as do other emerging economies, including India, Brazil and a lengthening list of countries from Asia, the Middle East and South America.

Africa is recognized by these ‘new players’ as an increasingly important source of energy and resources, and with a billion people, relatively under-populated given its massive size. Interest in Africa’s land and potential as a source of inexpensive labour is growing.

The real challenge is whether Africa has the management and technical capacity and political determination to grasp this growing interest and the opportunities it can bring to promote equitable economic growth and tackle the myriad problems that are the focus of the development community. Leadership, effective use of resources and accountability are the winning ingredients.

One of the problems resulting from the western image of Africa is the perception that aid is somehow the answer to her problems. In fact, over the last decade, overseas development assistance (ODA) has been overtaken by private capital flows as a source of finance to Africa, and is now level pegging with remittances – money sent back by expatriate Africans living in the diaspora. Dwarfing all three are domestic revenues – government income from trade, tax and other sources.

The very effectiveness of aid actors and campaigners in drawing attention to development and humanitarian problems and crises is, ironically, helping to define the negative image of Africa. Their arguments for maintaining ODA levels include the negative consequences of failure to do so – including migratory flows into Europe, and conflict and instability that might breed terror.

These arguments explain the relative lack of importance, compared to the newer players, accorded by western countries to engaging with Africa around investment promotion, low carbon growth and increased trade.

Despite what its detractors say, aid has an honourable track record in saving lives and creating opportunities for poor people, which is not to say that there isn’t scope for improving its quality and effectiveness. People-to-people and private sector aid focused on specific problems and communities, particularly when not ideologically motivated, is making a tangible positive difference.

But the best use of ODA is to leverage the potential benefits of other forms of development finance – by strengthening capacities to raise and account for revenues, reduce illicit flows, fight corruption, facilitate remittances and attract private investment, as well as to catalyse infrastructure and other large projects that will fast forward Africa’s vast clean energy and trading potential.

Is it too much to expect at least some of the coverage around the World Cup to increase an understanding of these complex issues? Opportunities like this do not come often. The last thing Africa needs is coverage that just reinforces the negative stereotyping and that gives a false impression both of the continent’s problems, and of the solutions to them.

Michael Keating is Executive Director of the Africa Progress Panel
1st March 2010

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