Africa’s Competing Visions for the 21st Century

Published on 1st January 2008

Four visions of Africa are currently competing to define its agenda, image and presence in the international community. The first, an urgent humanitarian aid version at the core of which is the view that foreign aid is urgently needed to save Africans from specific diseases, self-inflicted violence, dictators and poverty. Two diseases that have captured the interest of the international community the last decade are HIV/AIDS and the now more `trendy’ malaria.

 

A second vision is the African presidents led version which promotes a `United Africa’ through such initiatives as the New Partnership for Development (NEPAD) and calls for the G8 countries to help. A third vision is the bottom-up version from community-based citizenship groups calling for national priorities for poverty reduction through a focus on grass root governance.

 

The fourth and most current vision calls for the positioning of Africa as an economic force in the 21 century, and calls for strategies to promote the business and economic vibrancy in/of the continent. For proponents of this vision, aid and charity has failed and Africa’s quest for economic sustainability can only be realized through foreign direct investments and export opportunities. 

 

While conceding that the second and third visions are integral to the fourth, supporters of building an Africa suitable for FDI and other export opportunities are in direct conflict with the proponents of the first vision – those calling for more aid to `save Africa’ from worst case scenario projections of impending humanitarian crisis.

 

In spite of growing confidence in the economies of many African countries, the first vision and perception dominates and drives the presence and agenda of Africa in the international community. Steven Langdon a former Canadian Member of Parliament and Director of the Poverty Reduction program of the Parliamentary Centre in Ottawa-Canada, argues in The Heart of Hopelessness that it is hard after the Barcelona AIDS Conference, not to get caught up in the passionate vision of what the AIDS devastation of Africa promoters calls `Africa’s accelerating catastrophe – that by the year 2020, the number of deaths from AIDS in Africa will approximate the number of deaths, military and civilian combined, in both world wars of the 20th century.’

 

While conceding that HIV/AIDS is a huge assault in a minority of African countries, Langdon argues that the picture is not unremittingly grim. Moreover, “many of the alarming numbers (statistics) are worst-case projections, rather than detailed snapshots of what has already come to pass.” The alarmist projection of doom and disaster on Africa by fund-raisers have the effect of making Africa out to be a basket-case yet again, in need of foreign charity to survive. “This is as unfair as citing Zimbabwe’s problem as typical trends in African governance”.

 

Langdon like many other optimists about Africa’s future, base their arguments on detailed and strong evidence of social, economic and political growth in the continent. Nigeria’s military regime, for example, was finally stopped … and a democratic regime opened the books to let the people monitor the uses to which oil riches were put. … Uganda’s government achieved better economic growth and income-sharing than Asian countries.

 

In The Africa You Never See Carol Pineau expands the list of significant economic successes: 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. She argues; `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.’ Voices of optimists like Langdon and Pineau are drowned out by the rattling begging bowls of the robust public relations machines of the humanitarian aid and charity industries in the West.

 

The crisis for Africa today is that the wave of optimism that has been sweeping across many nations has failed to capture international attention. It is becoming common knowledge in Africa that the continent is falsely and exclusively represented in the Western media and institutions as a region and continent of devastation; disease, violence, corruption and poverty, and inhabited by peoples totally incapable of addressing these challenges. Africa’s overpowering identity subsumes and dominates that of her own nations.

 

While many multinational cooperations (MNC) in Africa are reaping the benefit of the continent’s 850 million population, they often yield to the pressure from western based humanitarian aid and the international development community to respond to live out their corporate social responsibility commitment.

 

Many Africans and their allies have become bolder in publicly articulating concerns that the negative image of Africa is deliberately manipulated and driven by the fund-raising agenda of Western based humanitarian aid and development organizations. Criticisms are also rife against the increasing role and involvement of Western celebrities in enforcing the aid and charity image of Africa. With the wide spread use of the internet and other innovative multi-media channels, this criticism must have come to the attention of the many Western NGOs that are engaged in creating images to support the charity and aid branding of Africa, yet nothing is changing.

 

For Western-based international humanitarian relief and development agencies, it is business as usual as aid and charity agendas continue to drive, direct and define Africa’s presence and image in the international community. The robust fundraising and public relations drive of international NGOs are also subsuming efforts to publicize the economic growth potential and confidence that is alive in many nations in Africa. In Is Africa Misbranded? By Melissa Davis (August 13, 2007 issue), `Despite the awareness and the pleas—and the impression that much is being done for “Africa”—overall international aid to Africa has consistently fallen during the last decade; most of the G8 promises to help Africa have not been met; unfair international trade rules remain a key issue ... The newspaper columns, the concerts, and the international declarations remain in the realms of rhetoric.’

 

In a world where a nation’s economic success lies in its competitive advantage in the global economy, international image (perception) and branding rules, drives and direct. Africa must embrace this reality unapologetically and step up for its citizens’ sake. Many nations in Africa are rising to this challenge, but national efforts continue to be subsumed by the regional (Africa) negative image. Just as a nations brand impacts on national products, Africa’s regional brand is impacting on national strategies to build and promote positive brands within the continent.


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