The African Success Story

If there was a theme to the development stories I read last week it was that the good news about rising standards of living on much of the African continent is not getting the recognition it deserves in the mainstream imagination. In case you don’t agree that people have a negatively skewed image of Africa as a whole, try this experiment: Ask an educated, well-read (but non-Africanist) friend or relative to estimate what percentage of African countries are at war right now. Let me know what you find. I’ve done it many times and have never gotten anything but a huge overestimate.

Or take a look at the op-ed by rock musician (cum Africa expert?) Ted Nugent, actually published in the Washington Times (HT Wronging Rights):

There is no country in Africa that truly respects freedom or the rule of law. The majority of countries in Africa are in economic ruin because of political corruption and a history ugly with cruel despotism. That’s why starvation and disease are rampant. AIDS is projected to kill as much as half the populations of some countries. Genocide is a way of life. There is little light in Africa.

If you’re not inclined to accept Ted Nugent as representative of widely-held views on Africa (and please, don’t!) do note that his comment, in the same article, that “Africa is an international scab,” is only slightly grosser and more insulting than Tony Blair’s infamous sound byte calling Africa “a scar on the conscience of the world” that will only get “deeper and angrier” without our intervention.

Karen Rothmyer, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review (HT to reader Hemal Shah), says this sensationalized picture of an Africa relentlessly trampled by the four horsemen of the apocalypse is the fault of NGOs and aid groups, which

understandably tend to focus not on what has been accomplished but on convincing people how much remains to be done. As a practical matter, they also need to attract funding. Together, these pressures create incentives to present as gloomy a picture of Africa as possible in order to keep attention and money flowing, and to enlist journalists in disseminating that picture.

She also blames credulous, budget-squeezed and time-pressed journalists who are only too eager to accept aid agencies accounts and figures to support the stories of misfortune. And everyone knows that bad news is news, while the story line that things are spinning along just as they should is generally met with a resounding yawn (and don’t we know that here on Aid Watch).

So perhaps Charles Kenny’s new book, “Getting Better,” which I’ve added to my reading list, will provide an attitude adjustment. The book, reviewed last week in the New York Times, argues that life in Africa and in most of the developing world has improved in recent decades at rates unprecedented in mankind’s history. Although economic growth hasn’t always kept pace, people in Africa today can expect to live longer, healthier, happier, better educated lives than their parents or grandparents.

In his introduction, Kenny reminds us that

the proportion of the population of sub-Saharan Africa affected by famine averaged less than three-tenths of a percent. The proportion who were refugees in 2005 was five-tenths of a percent. The number who died in wars between 1965 and 2001 averaged one one-hundredth of a percent.

While the use of statistics like these requires a disclaimer that any number of people dying from famine or war is too many, they are a useful corrective to the sensationalized doom-and-gloom-filled images of Africa, which may be more firmly and widely held than we would like to believe.