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Bright Continent

Why Africa's success stories are too often overlooked

By Nicholas D. Kristof

Mention Africa in polite company, and those around you may grimace, shake their heads sadly, and profess sympathy. Oh, all those wars! Those diseases! Those dictators!

Naturally, that attitude infuriates Africans themselves, since the conventional view of Africa as a genocide inside a failed state inside a dictatorship is, in fact, wrong.

In the last few years, Africa overall has enjoyed economic growth rates of approximately 5 percent, better than in the United States (although population growth is also higher). Africa has even produced some especially vibrant economies, like Botswana and Rwanda, that show what the continent is capable of.

The bane of Africa is war, but the number of conflicts has dwindled (see Times Past). Most of the murderous dictators like Idi Amin of Uganda are gone, and we're seeing the rise of skilled technocrats who accept checks on their power and don't regard the treasury as their private piggy bank. The Rwandan cabinet room is far more high-tech than the White House cabinet room, and when you talk to leaders like Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, you can't help wondering about investing in Liberian stocks.

"The media's problem is that, by covering only disasters and wars, it gives us only that image of the continent," writes Richard Dowden in Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles. "Persistent images of starving children and men with guns have accumulated into our narrative of the continent."

Dowden faults aid organizations for helping to maintain the image of Africans as helpless victims of wars and famines.

"The aid industry too has an interest in maintaining the image of Africans as hopeless victims of endless wars and persistent famines," he continues. "However well intentioned their motives may once have been, aid agencies have helped create the single, distressing image of Africa. They and journalists feed off each other."

The Media's Role

I've thought a lot about these issues, partly because I often write columns about war and disaster in Africa, from Darfur to Congo to AIDS in southern Africa. And it's discomfiting to feel that I'm helping Africa by exposing such catastrophes, and then have African leaders complain—as they do—that such reporting undermines their access to foreign investment and their ability to expand their economies and overcome poverty.

We in the news media and in the aid world can and should do a much better job providing context and acknowledging successes. Yet the problem surely isn't that the news media have overdone coverage of the disasters. The civil war in Congo is the most lethal conflict since World War II, costing about 5 million lives since 1998, and it has dragged on partly because journalists haven't done a better job propelling it onto the international agenda. You'll never persuade me that we've overcovered the slaughter in Congo—our sin is that we didn't scream enough, not that we screamed too much.

Asia's Example

The most successful and cost-effective interventions are typically the grassroots efforts started by local people with local knowledge addressing local needs. We could do much more to support such efforts, with us Westerners serving as aides and financiers to African social entrepreneurs.

"Aid agencies, Western celebrities, rock stars, and politicians cannot save Africa," writes Dowden. "Only Africans can develop Africa. Outsiders can help, but only if they understand it, work with it."

One of Africa's problems to this day is that there is very little manufacturing of the kind that is powering Asia's industrial revolution. The sweatshops of Asia look unpalatable to Westerners, but it's sometimes said that in a poor country the only thing worse than being exploited is not being exploited. Employment opportunities in Africa are meager and rarely involve "wealth creation": the kind of investment that will produce jobs and spur even more economic growth in addition to boosting living standards.

One of the best American "aid" programs is not really an aid program at all, but it addresses wealth creation. It's the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which was signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 2000. It offers duty-free import of manufactured goods from Africa into the United States: That makes African exports cheaper for Americans to buy compared with exports from other countries, which helps create more jobs in Africa. (It also helps explain why some of the jeans and T-shirts you buy are now made in Africa.)

Another way to boost Africa's economy would be ending agricultural subsidies in the United States. West African cotton farmers suffer not only from droughts, corruption, and wretched roads, but also from America's cotton subsidies: Such subsidies lower the price of cotton grown in the U.S. and make it hard for African cotton to compete fairly, costing jobs for Africans.

There are good reasons to be optimistic about Africa. We journalists tend to cover Africa in stark and simple contrasts, but countries live and grow and falter in grays. Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that the world does not have to feel sorry for Africa to care about it.

(The New York Times Upfront, Vol. 142, April 19, 2010)