Turn the “Africa Rising” debate back towards Africa

This has been a prime year for debating how Africa should be presented to the west. Ian Birrell lamented in The Guardian that the image presented by media and NGOs hasn’t kept up with the rapid progress made by countries such as Ethiopia or Mozambique. In June, the debate flared up on twitter & blogs between Nick Kristof of the NY Times, who highlights under-reported conflict and disasters in Africa, and a few critics who suggest that Kristof is promoting the story of Africa’s problems and ignoring its successes. And most (in)famously, 2012 will always be attached to the advocacy group Invisible Children, whose Kony2012 video promoted the “white savior” idea – whereas other NGOs like Mama Hope work to sell a more humanizing and dignified image of Africans to westerners.

I want to throw in my two cents, and suggest that while this debate is important, there’s an equally important one that these tweets, articles and videos ignore. True, we should be discussing what responsibility reporters and advocates have in relaying stories from Africa to the west. But just as relevant – especially for NGOs and aid agencies – is: what story is told about Africa in Africa?

Not being a close follower of African media, I can’t say whether a particular image is typically presented in most countries. I can say that Niger’s news was usually a pretty boring roundup of what various ministers did that day. I can also say that, at least in the Sahel countries I’ve visited, people’s perception of their own country’s prospects tends to be pretty glum. Dare I suggest (or even point to evidence) that confidence is just as important in community development as it is in financial markets?

My taxi driver the other day in Dakar is a good example. We were talking about the unmarked speed bumps, after he’d had to jam on the brakes to avoid hitting one at full speed. We mentioned a couple relatively simple solutions – signs, yellow paint – but then cynicism took over:

     Him: “Well, this is Senegal.” (aka: we shouldn’t expect even simple problems fixed)

     Me: “That shouldn’t be a good excuse.”

     Him: “… we learn to deal with things as they are.”

That cynicism I have heard over and over throughout West Africa – in schools, in markets, even in NGO offices. This I can’t fault anyone for, since so many have so few opportunities, and it’s certainly not unique to Africa. When the barriers are huge, it’s hard to see how slowly chipping away at them will get anywhere.

But there are lots of capabilities in these poor, rural Sahel communities. I have seen people doing pretty extraordinary things with really lousy tools at their disposal. How some of those bush taxis keep running I will never know. The ingenuity of mechanics & drivers in Niger, in Senegal and in many other countries is pretty unbelievable sometimes. But their skills are rarely exalted or even acknowledged. They definitely don’t show up in NGO community asset surveys!

Just as rarely are those skills turned towards creating more sustainable solutions to problems. Mechanics can MacGyver an old Peugeot truck with the best of them. But for the most part, in Niger at least, innovation with local products or local ideas is simply undervalued, and not very rewarding for the innovators (in social or $$ terms).

There were, however, a few examples that I saw. (I’d love to hear more!)

  • In the town where I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer, my good friend Moussa not only was the town’s only baker (with the town’s only real functioning brick oven), but he also built a small garden of local cucumbers that, after investing the upfront costs of water, fencing and time, filled a gap in the market and earned him a nice profit. Just the fact that he managed to protect the plants from the ubiquitous chickens and goats is worth a medal.
  • In markets all across Niger, you can buy a little battery-powered light made from an old CD and Christmas light bulbs. (To my lasting regret, I didn’t get a good picture of one but I’ll keep looking online.) It’s a simple little device – punch holes in an old CD, glue the small bulbs in the holes and wire them up to a homemade battery pack. (I was told this was invented in Nigeria and sarcastically named the “Obasanjo,” after the former Nigerian president who didn’t deliver on his promise to bring electricity to the rural areas.) It’s cheap, made with available materials and helps kids do their homework at night when they don’t have electricity. Imagine what could happen if people had better materials available – as one particularly sharp consultant suggested to me, small cheap solar panels…
  • Another volunteer in Niger helped to organize and finance a sesame oil cooperative in her village – and the women who grow the seeds and process them into oil are marketing and selling their product in some of the most expensive stores in the capital. They’re creating value and growing their business. While they are vulnerable to shocks like drought or flooding, this is the type of business that can build resilience.
  • Looking bigger-picture, the Africa Rising Foundation is a South African organization dedicated to changing the image of Africa within Africa. Board chairman Ndaba Mandela (a grandson of the famous Mandela) spoke to this idea at Harvard’s African Development Conference earlier this year, as part of a panel of other young African leaders, all of whom have accomplished a great deal.

Why is this relevant for the west? Obviously, it’s not up to the west to decide what image of Africa should be presented on the continent. But we do have cultural and political influence: eg. American movies are pretty popular here, and Obama’s visit to Ghana was highly covered in African media, including the democracy angle.

More importantly, aid agencies and NGOs are working on the ground in many African communities, but their communications are always focused outward, towards the west and the donors. Their very presence can perpetuate the white savior myth and a culture of dependence. Organizational culture can easily reflect the negative and cynical image, in part because colleagues in the west are constantly demanding sensational (read: negative) stories to market themselves above the crowd of NGOs. This organizational culture must be avoided, and NGOs have a responsibility to approach their work with a positive mindset that explicitly values and promotes the ingenuity, and possibilities, within their host communities.

Positive, inspiring stories about ordinary Africans should be told in Africa – by NGOs, by media, through school curricula, and through the grapevine. Doubtless this is happening in many countries already. When I traveled in Ghana, for example, people from all walks of life seemed far more optimistic and empowered. But in Niger I rarely saw this, and even more rarely in the areas where optimism was most needed. In schools, on rural radio and national TV, in the NGO discourse, the image presented was pretty much always the same – here’s the huge problems, and here’s how huge contributions from government or NGOs can help you. Slow progress wasn’t exalted, only big leaps – and such leaps were beyond the reach of poor rural communities.

Growing up in white, middle-class America*, we had The Little Engine that Could, we had the Founding Fathers who struggled and won against great odds, we had Bill Gates who started Microsoft in his basement (or garage, or wherever). Our language has expressions like “rags to riches” and “pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” We had heroes in sports and war and music. They were ordinary people who accomplished extraordinary things. We wanted to emulate them.

But we didn’t even need to. We also saw value in the everyday woman or man who contributed a little something to making her or his community better. And even though we knew most of us weren’t going to be rich or famous, we still (usually) felt proud and rewarded for our small, individual contributions to our communities.

Development doesn’t have to be big and game-changing. Telling the story of slow progress can help make it feel like progress, and help push it along.

I would love to hear comments on this piece. And examples of small-scale ingenuity & innovation from Africa!

*The messages and images presented to other demographic groups in the US are very different, and not always so inspiring. Many others have promoted this positive-imagery strategy in low-income neighborhoods already.


About developingnathan
I am a reflective person. I am an introvert, a friend, a brother and a son. I appreciate a well-crafted glass of beer, piece of music and turn of phrase. I am a professional of international development, a good pianist and a Green Bay Packers fan.

7 Responses to Turn the “Africa Rising” debate back towards Africa

  1. Mary says:

    Nice work, Nathan. You might be interested in this piece too: http://www.bostonreview.net/BR37.4/jina_moore_africa_journalism_colonialism.php

  2. Amytheresa says:

    Hey Nathan, thank you for these heartfelt and thoughtful reflections and provocations to “international development” and media fields to step in a good direction! After recently coming back to Boston from Rwanda I see that the way the “west” portrays politics and development in Rwanda drastically differs from the story and situation in country. I learned so much more by talking to Rwandans, listening and visiting than I could have by only reading western media. I think your point about African stories told in African is well put and salient – this post is a good start, for what or how I’m not sure

  3. Thanks for the comments. Another take on this by Owen Barder, about why he prefers not to answer questions about Meles Zenawi: http://www.owen.org/blog/5748
    Amy it’s similar to your point, that the interpretations can be way more interesting from local observers. And I imagine that Ethiopians – despite whatever restrictions on free speech Meles may have thrown up – listen to Ethiopian political commentary more than they listen to outsiders.
    I just haven’t seen that, at least in the Sahel, in terms of the story of development, or change, or progress, or whatever you want to call it. People, media, governments, etc seem to automatically adopt the rhetoric of “we’ve got these huge problems that can only be fixed with huge outside help.” Which might be true, but there are also more localized problems that can benefit from local action, and it’s these stories that aren’t being told.

    • Amytheresa says:

      Yeah that’s a solid voice from Owen that isn’t said much in western media. Then again my daily dose on Sudan is from Sudan tribune (which I then cross check w other western sources), not always the most neutral and often colorful but I like it as a way to get a feel. Nathan interestingly enough the refrain in Rwanda at least for the few weeks I was there – though I was with ministry of defense so having a clear bias – differed from the attitude that you describe in the Sahel. The RDF (RPA) stopped the genocide when the intl cmty failed, the RDF rebuilt the institutions (with massive foreign funding no doubt), so there is this homegrown sense of pride and progress that was really neat to get a glimpse of. Rwanda seems to be an anomaly .

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