Africa Rising: The Continent Formerly Known as Hopeless

Global malaria deaths to 2010

Global malaria deaths to 2010

Yesterday, I substitute taught two undergraduate classes for a friend of mine in the Department of African Studies. I included the graphic on the right in my presentation. It shoes the yearly trend of malaria deaths in SSA for the years 1990 to 2010.

Now, barring data quality problems (which undoubtably exist), this pattern should be incredibly encouraging. Deaths from one of the biggest killers of children worldwide are finally falling after years of consistent increase. For a person involved in public health, this is a reason to rejoice.

Of course, I already knew this. Standing up in front of a classroom explaining how great this trend is stuck me, however.

I have no idea what students’ views and impressions of Africa are. For those who have been there, it’s pretty safe to assume that their impressions are relatively positive and realistic. Of course, most have not been there. What is impressive to me is how this positive change deviates quite far from traditional narratives of what Africa is about.

Africa is “supposed” to be a hopeless place of endless suffering, with no real means of lifting itself out. Discussions of “overpopulation” are often predicated on the assumption that Africans, their huge families and uncontrollable sexual urges are irresponsibly destroying the earth. This to me, reflects the horribly negative impression that even well meaning liberal Americans hold.

In part, we are to blame. In attempting to generate funds and support for intervention in Africa, we present the bleakest picture imaginable. This is really quite unavoidable. It’s difficult to get people to open their wallets if you show them pictures of Kenyan kids sharing photos on Facebook with their smart phones.

Actually, I’m often under the impression that many people even think that the growth of connectivity and consumerism are negatives, nostalgic for the days when Africans led “traditional” lifestyles. Certainly, there are a few academics, particularly those who work on pastoralist issues, that hold this view (I would argue, though, that “pastoralism” is a false concept created by academics and has little basis in reality).

The image of hopelessness isn’t without merit. The Economist rightly labeled the continent as “hopeless” back in 2000, and rightly so. The outlook for the continent back then was pretty bleak.

The data in 2013 have largely refuted the doomsday claims of 2000, but when presenting the great gains in reducing malaria deaths, decreasing new HIV infections, increasing cel phone connectivity, tripling GDP in a decade, lengthening life and halving infant deaths and a host of other positive indicators, one runs the risk of being an over positive Africa proselytizer. Things almost seem too good to be true. Jeff Sachs article is today’s times seems so positive as to be completely unrealistic.

The trouble here, is that the negatives aren’t all that easy to explain and revolve around problems that are untenable in the short term. Low diversification of the economy and an over-reliance on resources. Government dependence on donor groups to (unsustainably) fund their health systems. The mass quagmire and complexity of Africa’s most corrupt crony governments, to name a few.

The reality can’t be denied, however. Things are looking great for many, many African countries. Our trouble as people interested in Africa, is probably that we try to throw all African countries into a mixed bag as conversations of Africa have traditionally done (do we ever assume that France and Poland are the same? or France and Turkey??). This is, at best misleading and at worst, a disservice to the resilience of so many people in Africa who are doing so many great things.

About Pete Larson

Researcher at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research. Lecturer in the University of Michigan School of Public Health and at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. I do epidemiology, public health, GIS, health disparities and environmental justice. I also do music and weird stuff.

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