In his racist novel Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad projects the image of Africa as “the other world,” the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization. The description of Africans as savages is unpalatable, at least to a conscious reader. Featuring images of emaciated children, Conrad set forth what would be Africa’s identity in the world and a continent -as the land of poverty, helplessness and hopelessness. Recently, however, this preexisting notion is being challenged by a new narrative: aiming to bring up Africa’s glory by preaching its positive aspects.
Those behind this movement seek to articulate the visions, histories, philosophies and aspirations of Africans in light of Africa’s misinterpretation by the Western media. These narrative states that Africa is no longer hopeless, but a continent full of economic opportunities and a rapidly expanding middle class. Proponents cite statistics on how sub-Saharan Africa’s economic growth will outpace the world’s by 2.1 percent in addition to having six of the world’s fastest growing economies.
On the surface, it seems the horror of Africa has been replaced with optimism, yet in many ways, one stereotype just replaced another. Is Africa really rising? Has the alleged economic growth translated into improved standards of living? If so, then who is benefiting from the fact that 48 percent of Africans still live on less than $1.25 a day? With about half of the population living in dire poverty, evidence shows that Africa’s immense economic growth is being outpaced by growth inequality. Most African countries have failed to channel economic growth into economic development for their people.
Thus, this narrative and its consequent economic growth have mainly been of benefit to multi-national corporations and local elites. To see if Africa is really rising, one should differentiate between economic growth and economic development. Economic development is growth accompanied by advancements in healthcare, education and living standards among other things. It improves human welfare across the board. Economic growth is usually indicated by an increase in gross domestic product.
It is possible to have economic growth without development. I get peeved when economic analysts continue to talk about Africa’s rise based on GDP projections and power consumption, because these are based on Africans consuming imported goods. Africa’s rise must be based on the emergence of worldviews based on principle-centered leadership, self-empowerment and responsibility.
We need to adapt economic systems not based on the acquisition and consumption of wealth but creating social equity and lifting people out of poverty. GDP projections do not address fundamental social problems.
Africa will only rise when her people realize that we need to create our own factories and consume our own manufactured products.
Africa’s rate of growth may have increased, but the structure of most Sub-Saharan economies has not changed. African economies are still narrowly based on the production and export of raw materials. There is little manufacturing. In fact, the “Africa rising” narrative exposes another issue. Figures regarding economic growth conceal the fact that the growth is predominantly driven by the extractive industry.
No country has advanced sustainably and in the long-term without developing a viable manufacturing sector. Manufacturing could provide the jobs Africa desperately needs, yet Africa is primarily selling raw commodities while many of its markets are dominated by cheap products from abroad, goods with which local producers cannot compete. Thus, this narrative disguises both residual problems and inherent vulnerabilities. While the proportion of Africa’s population living in extreme poverty is falling, youth unemployment threatens instability and despite greater access to education, standards are still low.
A shift from Africa’s image as a hopeless continent may be welcome, but if the new narratives of “Africa rising” are not sufficiently interrogated, and they conceal the fragility of Africa’s growth and the rocky patches on the road to genuine, inclusive development, today’s trendy new stereotype may prove to be no less hopeless than the last. To my African comrades: beware of half-truths. You may have gotten hold of the wrong half, because there is more to be done as far as economic development and sustainable future are concerned.