Yes, Africa is a land of wars, poverty and corruption. The situation in places like Darfur, Sudan, desperately cries out for more media attention and international action. But Africa is also a land of stock markets, high rises, Internet cafes and a budding middle class. This is the part of Africa that functions. And this Africa also needs media attention, if it’s to have any chance of fully joining the global economy.
Africa’s media image comes at a high cost, even, at the extreme, the cost of lives. Stories about hardship and tragedy aim to tug at our heartstrings, getting us to dig into our pockets or urge Congress to send more aid and celebrities like Madonna to make more trips to places that represent the stark contrast with Hollywood and Beverly Hills. But no country or region ever developed thanks to aid alone, not one. Investment, and the job and wealth creation it generates is the only road to lasting development. That’s how China, India and the Asian Tigers did it, not aid, period.
Yet while Africa, according to the U.S. government’s Overseas Private Investment Corp., offered the highest return in the world on direct foreign investment, it attracts the least investment. Unless investors see the Africa that’s worthy of investment, they won’t put their money into it. And that lack of investment translates into job stagnation, continued poverty and limited access to education and health care. And why would you invest in a place you only pity, a place that only deserves the dollars and pennies you do not need.
Consider a few facts: The Ghana Stock Exchange regularly tops the list of the world’s highest-performing stock markets. Botswana, with its A+ credit rating, boasts one of the highest per capita government savings rates in the world, topped only by Singapore and a handful of other fiscally prudent nations. Cell phones are making phenomenal profits on the continent. Brand-name companies like Coca-Cola, GM, Caterpillar and Citibank have invested in Africa for years and are quite bullish on the future. And of late Sawari Ventures, Investment AB Kinnevik, Intel Capital and many other venture capital funds are investing in Africa.
The failure to show the successful side of Africa creates a one-dimensional caricature of a complex continent. Imagine if 9/11, the Oklahoma City bombing and school shootings were all that the rest of the world knew about America. Imagine the Colorado Movie Theater Shooting was all you knew about United States. These events are covered, but that is not where the stories end. We also hear of the resilience of communities such as Sandy Hook, and of the young teachers who put themselves on the line to save the lives of kids.
I recently read about a wonderful journalist who sought to produce a documentary on entrepreneurship and private enterprise in Africa. Throughout the yearlong process, she came to realize how the popular media — even those with a true love of the continent — portray it in a way that’s truly to its detriment.
She explained that the first cameraman she asked to do the video answered, “Business and Africa, aren’t those contradictory terms?” The second got excited imagining heart-warming images of women’s co-ops and market stalls brimming with rustic crafts. Several of her friends simply assumed she was doing a documentary on AIDS. After all, what else does one film in Africa?
If you write Africa on Microsoft word and click synonym, corruption, poverty, wars, and homophobia would show up (I am kidding! But hey, you get the idea).
The little-known fact is that businesses are thriving throughout Africa. With good governance and sound fiscal policies, countries like Botswana, Ghana, Senegal and many more are bustling; their economies growing at surprisingly robust rates.
Obviously, good governance would dramatically improve life in Africa — or even just some governance — but it’s also true that through resilience and resourcefulness, Somalis have been able to create a functioning society.
Most African businesses suffer from an extreme lack of infrastructure, but the people I meet every time I am home are too determined to let this stop them. It just costs them more. Without reliable electricity, most businesses have to use generators. They have to dig boreholes for a dependable water source. Telephone lines are notoriously out of service, but cell phones are filling the gap.
I am continually astounded by the ingenuity, creativity and steadfastness of Africans. These people are the future of the continent. They are the ones we should be talking to about. Instead, the media concentrates on victims or government officials, and as anyone who has worked in Africa knows, government is more often a part of the problem than of the solution.
A few years back, ABC’s “Primetime Live” aired a special on Britain’s Prince Harry and his work with AIDS children in Lesotho. The segment, titled “The Forgotten Kingdom: Prince Harry in Lesotho,” painted the tiny nation as a desperate, desolate place. The program’s message was clear: This helpless nation at last had a knight — or prince — in shining armor.
By the time the charity addresses came up at the end, you were ready to give, and that’s good. Lesotho needed help with its AIDS problem. But would it really have hurt the story to add that this land-locked nation with few natural resources has jump-started its economy by aggressively courting foreign investment? The reality is that it’s anything but a “forgotten kingdom.” A dramatic increase in exports has made Lesotho the top beneficiary of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), a duty-free, quota-free U.S.-Africa trade agreement. More than 50,000 people have gotten jobs through the country’s initiatives. Couldn’t the program have portrayed an African country that was in need of assistance, but was neither helpless nor a victim?
Still the simplistic portrayals come. In 2005, an episode of the popular NBC drama “Medical Investigation” was about an anthrax scare in Philadelphia. The source of the deadly spores? Some illegal immigrants from Africa playing their drums in a local market, unknowingly infecting innocent passersby. Typical: If it’s a deadly disease, the scriptwriters make it come from Africa.
Most of the time, Africa is simply not on the map. The continent’s booming stock markets are almost never mentioned in newspaper financial pages, that is changing. At last African country — apart, perhaps, from South Africa or Egypt or Morocco – have featured in a newspaper’s travel section.
There are lots of reasons for the media’s neglect of Africa: bean counters in the newsroom and the high cost of international coverage, the belief that American viewers aren’t interested in international stories, and the infotainment of news. There’s also journalists’ reluctance to pursue so-called “positive stories.” We all know that such stories don’t win awards or get front-page, above-the-fold placement. But what’s happening in Africa doesn’t need to be cast in any special light.
Africa is diverse, beautiful, resilient, and rising.
With such abounding beauty, why the negative images of Africa?