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Five myths about Africa
August 13, 2011 7:03 AM   Subscribe

Five myths about Africa.
posted by - (35 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite

I am willing to bet it's a good article, since it was shared here, but Jesus, that interface. There's unrelated crap all over the screen, that obnoxious "links to other stories within the text" business that is all the rage with news sites at the moment, the usual 200,000 icons to share on different social networks, and all of this means there's only room on each "page" for about three paragraphs of actual story, so five myths take up eight pages.

I'm keeping the tab open to read once I'm more awake, but if anyone from the CSM (or other news site doing this shit) reads this, your page is not an inducement to close the browser and move along, it's a collection of several items that are in themselves multiple inducements to do that.
posted by Legomancer at 7:50 AM on August 13, 2011 [9 favorites]

Here's the "print" link:

Note: it assumes your printer can print YouTube videos.
posted by Legomancer at 7:52 AM on August 13, 2011 [5 favorites]

1, Africa isn't "poor": Fair enough; I am all about semantics. But we change that to "The majority of Africans are poor" and we're right back where we started, though at least we've identified an inequality and a place to start looking. The numbers he cites are limited entirely to South Africa, though (which as we'll see in #5 is a ridiculous thing to generalize an entire continent by).

2, Africa is "violent": Nothing in this section dismisses this notion. You can blame it all on the wars, if you'd like, but war is violent and wars and their ramifications rarely remain constrained to a well-defined area. I suppose you could argue that given the levels of poverty and illness the violence levels are not atypical compared to anywhere else in the world, but I'm not sure that really makes a difference.

3, Africa needs our help: "But the real reason has to do with the perception that Africa is incapable of solving its own problems." On a long enough timescale, I'm sure the various nations could solve their own problems. How many more people in, say, the Congo - men, women, children - are you okay with being raped and killed before that happens? The help people are trying to give to various nations right now might be the wrong kind of help but it is bullshit to suggest that everything would get sorted out in a couple of minutes if everyone else would just chill out for a few minutes. Also: are you asking me to be sympathetic for motherfucking Robert Mugabe?

4, Africa is backward: This one seems to be an anti-racism sort, I suppose, because I've never heard anyone talk about Africa as backward, just dirt-poor and wracked by violence.

5, Africa is a country: Yeah this notion is a problem. He really should have STARTED with this, picked three or four countries, and used those countries to talk about each myth. If the goal of the piece was to show, "Hey, you cannot make these blanket statements about a continent," that might've been a more effective way to go about it. By talking about specific countries you'd be breaking up the "Africa is homogenous" idea.

I have never been to Africa! I am ready and willing to be 100% disabused of my notions! But I need a better article than this to do it.
posted by curious nu at 8:07 AM on August 13, 2011 [26 favorites]

I skimmed this just now, and afaik (and I'm hoping other commenters can prove me wrong) the author is basing this on his observations on South Africa alone. If so, this may not apply (and can't in some respects) across the board in Sub Saharan Africa. ZA has a particular history and it has resulted in peculiar to itself anomalies and situations that really do not translate across other nations in the region, particularly in East or West Africa.
posted by infini at 8:08 AM on August 13, 2011

Perhaps I should give this a SPOILER tag, in case you haven't RTFA.

It seems a little weird to disprove the myth of African poverty by describing the lives of people struggling with poverty, and then end with:

What those figures suggest is that South Africa isn't a poor country: It's a country where the wealth is concentrated in a few hands.

Which means, yeah, I suppose South Africa isn't poor, it's just crammed full of poverty. Which just looks the same as a poor country. OK.

It seems weird to disprove the myth of African violence by describing violence. The fact that the guys who robbed him were not particularly interested in hurting him does not mean that wasn't violence. Then he goes on to say:

Does the violence of these wars make Africa a violent place? Not any more, necessarily, than the violence of the Bosnian-Serb conflict of the early 1990s made Europe a dangerous place. Wars in Africa are about the same sort of stuff that they are about on other continents: power.

which is not a great argument; after all, the Bosnian-Serb conflict was in one corner of Europe, and there was not much danger of, say, the fighting spreading to Germany, Italy, or France. Why the wars are being fought is kind of irrelevant, unless you are refuting an assertion that Africans are somehow more "war-prone" as people rather than because of specific situations.

Now, with point three, he starts getting on firmer ground. Africans may not need Western help, or, at least, they may not need help in the form that we want to give. I have a journalist friend who has spent time in Latin America and Africa who argues, for example, that sending shoes to the Third World does way more harm than good. And, it's pretty clear that some of the aid is being done for dodgy reasons. On the other hand, the people described in the article who complain the loudest about Western aid seem to be the politicians who don't want light cast on their governments, and I am not sure that turning down Western AIDS drugs (in favor of what, circumcision?) is a great policy, but...

By point four, he has got me. Africa is not backward. Africa is a continent that has serious problems, many of them caused by centuries of extreme exploitation by foreign powers that destroyed extant social, economic, and political balances for foreign gain and left a chaotic vacuum in their wake as the foreign powers decided to get out (or switched from public to private exploitation if there were obvious natural resources). I liked the stories of African ingenuity; I wish we would hear more of them.

I talked to a guy a while back who was working for a non-profit that was set up in the US to provide literature support for African agencies involved in science and agriculture. The idea was that they would offer electronic journal access to researchers and practitioners. They pretty quickly worked out (form both continents) that their model was a dud -- the researchers could not get a stable internet connection long enough to search and download articles. So they switched to a system of sending queries and results by cell phone and faxing selected articles as needed. These people were not dummies -- they found a problem and solved quickly and elegantly.

Point five also got me. I think we in the West tend to think of Africa as a country because we can't be bothered to learn about the individual countries and their specific situations (although he does give nods to the Pan-African movements of the late Colonial Period (are we out of the Colonial Period?)) and their effect on the idea. On the other hand, I am not heartened, as the author seems to be, by the sentiment that what many African countries need to is split along ethnic lines -- there is a point beyond which this isn't feasible economically, and I am not sure a continent made of of many more countries with fewer resources would be an improvement. On yet another hand, though, when even Belgium is torn by secessionist movements, I am not sure the West has any business lecturing anyone on this.

Anyway, interesting article.
posted by GenjiandProust at 8:14 AM on August 13, 2011 [6 favorites]

Earlier this year, we pulled together a series taking a contemporary view of Africa as a place to do business, with emphasis on the technology and innovation emerging from the region.
posted by infini at 8:27 AM on August 13, 2011

infini: He bases some of his arguments on time in the Horn, in DRC, and elsewhere in Africa. The case he refers to at length in disputing African backwardness in M-PESA in Kenya. (Which is an example I hope we'll be following soon in the US, incidentally.)

Genjiandproust: on whether SA is "poor": reading it as an unequal, rather than a poor country, makes for different solutions. It suggests that a greater redistributive effort or the reining in of certain elites may be what is needed, rather than simple charity from abroad.
posted by col_pogo at 8:27 AM on August 13, 2011 [3 favorites]

These seem to less be myths than simplistic explanations of real problems.

Although the "Africa needs your help" section is odd. It seems to say "Well, yes, in the short-term it does, but also needs the opportunity to solve long-term solutions on its own, and, if you're a celebrity, my South African friends will make fun of you."
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 8:29 AM on August 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

It's still roughly the same size as Greenland, right?
posted by ceribus peribus at 8:36 AM on August 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

It's still roughly the same size as Greenland, right?

posted by curious nu at 8:41 AM on August 13, 2011 [11 favorites]

Genjiandproust: on whether SA is "poor": reading it as an unequal, rather than a poor country, makes for different solutions. It suggests that a greater redistributive effort or the reining in of certain elites may be what is needed, rather than simple charity from abroad.

But how many "poor" countries are there where this isn't true? In most, there seems to be a small wealthy elite and an enormous underclass. This may even me a metric for identifying a poor nation.

I wish he hadn't used per capita GDP rather than, say, a mean and a median income to give a better idea of the disparity. I realize that per capita GDP gets used this way, but they aren't strictly equivalent. Looking further, this page listing per capita GDPs drawn from IMF, World Bank, and CIA World Factbook for 2010 all put South Africa at about $7000US, which is below the world mean of ~$9000US (although they are still well above the Median in each list). A comparison of selected African countries that have somewhat equivalent per capita GDPs (Gabon, Botswana, Suriname, Namibia, and maybe Angola by those lists) for general standard of living issues and distribution of wealth would be really helpful -- can anyone suggest something that would do this?

I am not a great hand at economic analysis, so maybe I just have the wrong end of the stick here. But, as far as I can tell, poverty and economic disparity almost always go hand in hand.
posted by GenjiandProust at 9:04 AM on August 13, 2011

This is a terrible article. It starts right from the title with the word "myths". A myth is something which isn't true. But then the article goes on to point out real-life examples of violence, poverty and so on. Uhhhhhh....

Press coverage of Africa is biased towards the negative, but to say these problems are myths is downright weird. It gets even weirder when the author cites South Africa's Thabo Mbeki's wacko AIDS stance as an example of African self-determination in the face of Western interference. Holy crap.

I give him credit for mentioning M-PESA but then there's "I watched women use handmade foil-and-cardboard solar stoves to cook meals." I love the use of appropriate technology but way to toe the line of yet another stereotype.
posted by storybored at 9:15 AM on August 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

The author's comment on urban crime (as opposed to conflict) in Africa is thus:
Friends of ours from Mexico City and Rio de Janeiro have told us that crime here [ie, Johannesburg] is nothing compared with what they have back home.

This seems to be demonstrably incorrect, at least judging by this survey for the 90's by UNICRI. In just about every metric except assault and robbery, Jo'berg scores higher than Rio. It'll be extremely interesting if there's any change for 2000's; haven't been able to pull cites in this regard.
posted by the cydonian at 9:25 AM on August 13, 2011 [2 favorites]

Hmmm, I liked the article when I read it, but obviously it didn't work.
Personally, I've only visited North Africa (and already, when people talk about Africa, they mean sub-saharan Africa), but I have many friends from different countries in Africa. And this guy's last point is the most important: it's a continent, goddammit. The countries in Africa are really, really different. Somewhat anecdotically, I noticed he had only visited two of the countries I have personal knowledge of. Because journalists go where stuff happens. Not where ordinary people live ordinary lives. If he had visited some of the places my friends live and work, he might have been able to refute those myths even better.
As I see it, the core problem in Africa is governance. In South America and Asia, governance has improved considerably after the end of the cold war. That is not the case in Africa, or not to the same extent. Maybe the so-called Arabian Spring will change that? I don't know
posted by mumimor at 9:32 AM on August 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Africa is a continent of incredible richness (of land and spirit). It is a travesty that it should be "poor," as it certainly possesses the resources to support itself. In broad terms, it was screwed over the the West in the last few centuries, and now the East is stepping up to the plate. The diseases that wrack it certainly do not help.

While I don't think the article was terribly well written, I do like its basic premise. Say the word "Africa" to people and most of them will get mental images of squalor and starving children. This is a stereotype -- one that anecdotes from the article suggest is held even by Africans. I think the stereotype perpetuates the sub-standard status quo in those places where it does exist. If we want to help Africa, we can start by recognizing that it has the potential to support itself and make its own way into the 21st century. And then we can take stand against the thievery of its natural resources that rob it of its ability to do so.

As for the terrible internal corruption it experiences, we did considerable damage by imposing Western power structures on a place where they didn't belong. I think we need to recognize this. Africa isn't the only region to get this treatment and still be reeling from its effects. And yet we still continue to impose "democracy" on other places and create corrupt regime after corrupt regime. I think only time will heal the damage done, but for goodness' sake, can we stop repeating the mistake over and over again?
posted by mantecol at 10:11 AM on August 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Africa is a Country.
posted by iamck at 10:24 AM on August 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Apologies for one link comment, but the site does a better job than the article in dispelling myths about Africa -- it's a big continent, and after a few years of experience in "Africa" myself, he's really just talking about life in Johannesburg.
posted by iamck at 10:26 AM on August 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Gwynne Dyer has written a fair bit about Africa and in one of his books he pointed out it's only been since the end of WW II that Europe has been able to enjoy respite from about 5 centuries of nearly incessant full-scale warfare, genocide, famine, etc...
posted by bonobothegreat at 11:08 AM on August 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Africa's per capita income is less than a third of that of South America or Asia, and less than a tenth of that of any other inhabited continent. Of course it's "poor", and the fact that there are rich Africans doesn't change that, nor does the fact that there are generous poor Africans.
posted by Flunkie at 11:47 AM on August 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

@curious nu--I missed that episode of West Wing, therefore I was completely unaware of the Peters Map and the extent of the distortion in the Mercator Map--I must admit, I found discussions of the Peters/Mercator Map issues more compelling than this particular article about Africa. Thanks
And this (maps) is something of which I should, and will be, much more conversant.
posted by rmhsinc at 11:52 AM on August 13, 2011

My favorite world map projection: Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion Map (warning: cool Flash animation).
posted by Flunkie at 12:24 PM on August 13, 2011

I'm sorry flunkie--Greenland is still way to large and South America to small. I am still gobsmacked by the Peters Map--70 years and I have seen the world incorrectly. In retrospect I should have realized Greenland was not that large while while flying back and forth to Europe from the US. It is going to take a week or so to fully incorporate this new information.
posted by rmhsinc at 12:36 PM on August 13, 2011

No they're not, rmhsinc. Perhaps you're confusing what it's showing as "Greenland plus polar ice sheet" with "Greenland".

The Peters map is not "correct", so don't go thinking that just because it looks different than another map you're seeing the "correct" view when you look at the Peters map. Any flat map will show you the world incorrectly. Peters, for example, keeps the relative sizes of disjoint areas equal, but distorts the shapes.
posted by Flunkie at 12:48 PM on August 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Perhaps you're confusing what it's showing as "Greenland plus polar ice sheet" with "Greenland".
Here's an outline map in Dymaxion format, so that you can clearly see Greenland without confusing it with the polar ice cap.
posted by Flunkie at 12:52 PM on August 13, 2011

"Western aid comes with strings attached, including lengthy lectures on the merits of democracy, good governance, and human rights. Many Africans are tempted to interrupt this sermonizing with a question: "What about Guantánamo Bay?""

Are such strings really that terrible?! Does anyone trust 54 benevolent autocrats to do better. And, yes, are democracy is full of hypocrisy and inconsistency -- even the man who started Guantanamo was not popularly elected, but you know what, democracy allows a press to tell us about it and gives us the right to change course through orderly methods. Is it so bad to base aid upon such an underpinning?
posted by skepticallypleased at 1:02 PM on August 13, 2011

A classic: How to Write about Africa
posted by vidur at 1:06 PM on August 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Does anyone trust 54 benevolent autocrats to do better.

54 countries there were not before Europe started messing with it.
posted by mantecol at 1:20 PM on August 13, 2011

Does anyone trust 54 benevolent autocrats to do better.
54 countries there were not before Europe started messing with it.

So the solution involves time travel?
posted by Winnemac at 2:24 PM on August 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Well I think the belief that there is a solution to every problem is in itself problematic. I know we like to *do* things, but I think it's really important to continually ask ourselves whether that doing does more harm than good. And like I said upthread, we're repeating the mistake even now. Just look at the mess in Afghanistan, for example.
posted by mantecol at 4:47 PM on August 13, 2011

"Well I think the belief that there is a solution to every problem is in itself problematic."

Uh.. what's the alternative? That some problems have no solution? How can that be without delving into mysticism?
posted by curious nu at 6:04 PM on August 13, 2011

I'm sorry to have to say it, but by some metrics, Africa is extremely backward.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 12:01 AM on August 14, 2011

[map derail] World map by population. Because people are what count. [/map derail]
posted by alasdair at 11:20 AM on August 14, 2011

From BusinessWeek

Africa’s New Middle Class Lures Investment

For too long, the story of Africa has been about government corruption, war and disease. The economic news was bad, too; from 1975 to 1995, the continent was mired in negative growth, indebtedness and hyperinflation.

Now that story is changing. During the past 10 years, six of the world’s fastest-growing economies have been in sub- Saharan Africa, according to the Economist magazine. Over the next five years, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Ghana, Mozambique, Nigeria, Tanzania and Zambia may grow at an average of 7.2 percent annually, the Economist says. Over this period, the average African economy will outpace its counterpart in Asia. Africa has become an important emerging market and, compared with other regions, it has a relatively high rate of return on investments.

In many countries, political reform has accompanied economic growth, allowing local entrepreneurs to thrive. By 2030, Africa’s new middle class -- more than 300 million strong, -- will spend $2.2 trillion a year, which amounts to about 3 percent of worldwide consumption, according to the African Development Bank.

posted by infini at 11:05 PM on August 15, 2011

Behind the images of Africa's starving, there is economic hope

But the wave of publicity could hurt Africa. It would be a travesty if the stories and images of mass starvation threaten to entrench stereotypes that the whole continent is an economic basket case even though Africa has emerged as one of the world's fastest growing regions.

A range of indicators attest to the continent's economic momentum. The International Monetary Fund has forecast sub-Saharan Africa to grow by 5.5 per cent this year before accelerating to about 6 per cent in 2012. Growth will be driven by low-income countries such as Ghana and Ethiopia with oil exporters such as Nigeria and Angola lending support.

Africa's integration into the world economy is picking up pace and its trade partnerships are rapidly diversifying. China replaced the US as Africa's main trading partner in 2009, underscoring how the continent's economic orientation is shifting away from America and Europe. Emerging economies such as India, Korea, Brazil and Turkey have significant and growing trade relations with Africa. Like Australia, many African countries are benefiting from the broad-based commodities boom driven by Asian demand for raw materials.

Poverty rates in Africa are estimated to be 30 per cent lower than in 1995, and about 34 million more children are enrolled in primary schools than in 1999. Thirteen African countries are already classified as ''middle income'' and some optimistic forecasters say the whole continent could graduate to that global income category within a decade by spending about $US90 billion ($88.7 billion) a year on infrastructure (less than one-tenth of Australia's annual GDP). Even amid the pain and suffering of the Dadaab refugee camp, there were signs of how Africa is changing. Reporting from the camp was made easier by an excellent 3G mobile phone service. The reception there was often clearer than in Sydney (and much, much cheaper).

Kenyan capital Nairobi, unaffected by drought, has the bustle and traffic jams typical of a fast-growing economic hub. The African Development Bank says the east Africa region - which includes Kenya - grew by a healthy 6.2 per cent last year. Rwanda and Uganda - nations that have experienced horrifying violence and turmoil in the recent past - recorded annual growth rates of about 8 per cent between 2005 and 2009.

posted by infini at 5:17 PM on August 17, 2011

The last time I read a headline like this, I learnt that Somalia was one of the best places in the world to live.
posted by devnull at 1:05 AM on August 22, 2011

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