Combating Afro-Pessimism

AS IF IT did not have enough problems, Africa is once again having to fend off a particularly virulent outbreak of Afro-pessimism.

The latest outbreak was triggered by rebels in Sierra Leone, renowned for maiming and mutilating innocent children, seizing hundreds of U.N. peacekeepers and shooting unarmed civilians.

As if on cue, The Economist ran a cover story titled “The Hopeless Continent.” Soon after, the World Bank issued one of the most depressing reports to emanate from Washington in a long time. Cryptically titled “Can Africa Claim the 21st Century?”, the report recited a dreary list of problems that indicates that Africa is sick, and getting sicker.

The problem with looking at Africa as a continent is that it obscures its diversity. Talking about Africa as a “continent” is like talking about North America without disaggregating Mexico or Canada from the United States.

And Africa is far more diverse than North America, showing the uselessness of dumping every country into the same “continent” basket. With 54 countries, Africa is so large that all of the United States, China, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand could fit within its borders. Its 700 million people speak 1,000 languages. Some are Muslim, some Christian, others practice African religions. Economies vary dramatically, too. Take, for example, South Africa, a modern industrialized country with a per capita annual income of over $3,000. Then go to Mozambique, immediately to its north, which has a rural economy with an annual income of $80.

The fact is that many African countries are making substantial economic and political progress. You wouldn’t know that if you looked at the continent strictly through a scope fitted with an “Afro-pessimism” lens.

“From every statistical indicator Africa looks worse off than it was in 1960,” acknowledges Vivian Lowery Derrick, head of the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Africa Bureau. “But despite that, the continent has remarkable potential. There are enough bright spots that we shouldn’t be overwhelmed by the problems.”

In “The United States and Africa: A Post Cold War Perspective” — as useful a primer on U.S.-Africa relations as you’ll find — David Gordon, David Miller and Howard Wolpe present a typology that helps make sense of the misleading, one-size-fits-all characterizations of African states.

First there are the “emerging lions,” the countries that are on the right track, and making progress. Chief among these are South Africa, Botswana, Ivory Coast and Ghana. Then there are the “aspiring lions,” countries that are working to get on the right track, but face obstacles getting there, like Mali, Tanzania, Uganda, Mozambique and Benin. On the negative side, there are the “giants in crisis,” principally the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan. And then there are the “failed states” which dominate the headlines, like Somalia and Sierra Leone.

Even this helpful typology misses important distinctions. But it is a helpful approach to cure the continent of the Afro-pessimism plague. “The real danger is falling into despair, and that despair is not justified,” says Wolpe, President Clinton’s envoy to the Great Lakes region, Africa’s bloodiest hot-spot.

Sitting in Washington or San Francisco it is not always clear why we should even care. But there are compelling reasons why engaging with Africa — or better still individual countries in Africa — serves our national interest.

One is the matter of trade. The value of U.S. trade with Africa already exceeds $25 billion, more than the U.S. total with all the states of the former Soviet Union. But we should have a far larger stake in Africa. Imports from the United States make up only 7 percent of all imports to sub Saharan Africa — compared to 63 percent from the European Union.

The United States also has powerful reasons to work closely with African countries to combat global problems that affect our national interest — including drug trafficking, environmental degradation, and the spread of infectious diseases like AIDS.

Finally, it makes sense to try to prevent humanitarian crises, because the United States will have an increasingly tough time staying out of them. After the slaughter of nearly 1 million Tutsi in Rwanda in 1994, the United States ended up spending $900 million in humanitarian aid. In the same year, it spent $700 million in development aid to the entire continent. That is a lopsided equation does not make sense.

Of course, African leaders are all too often the biggest instigators of Afro-pessimism, “The fact that women, children and the aged are being slaughtered every day is an indictment against all of you,” Nelson Mandela told embarrassed Burundian leaders earlier this year. “Why do you allow yourselves to be regarded as leaders without talent, leaders without vision?”

But as USAID’s Derrick pointed out, even in the bleakest moments, there are signs of hope. In Sierra Leone, for example, citizens captured the rebel leader Foday Sankoh, at great risk to themselves, and he is now imprisoned awaiting trial.

Afro-pessimism is a persistent and dangerous bug. The best way to get rid of it is to start looking at Africa, not as a dark, hopeless continent, but one of individual countries and people. We should think first, not of Idi Amin, but of Nelson Mandela. That would be a more hopeful, and helpful, metaphor for Africa’s considerable prospects.