Africa: No Longer “The Hopeless Continent”

“Africa Rising” declared The Economist’s front page last week. How things change! Eleven years ago, the front page of the same prestigious weekly declared Africa “The Hopeless Continent”. Then a young soldier brandishing an RPG peered menacingly at the respectable reader, emerging from the dark map of the continent as if to suggest its descent into savage brutality. In the recent edition, the continent appears as a rainbow-coloured kite rising high in the sky, as a happy child plays in a serene savannah landscape. “The sun shines bright”, The Economist muses: Africa may soon have its own ‘lion economies’ to accompany the Asian ‘tigers’.

Today, The Economist regrets labeling Africa ‘hopeless’. It has good reason to do so, as rarely has a front page caused so much controversy and outrage. Africans and Africanist scholars were raging against the dismissal of the entire continent as beyond hope and help, and against the portrayal of unrestrained barbarity and the recreation yet again of Africa as the ‘heart of darkness’.  I vividly remember the anger directed at The Economist at conferences and workshops in the weeks and months following the May 2000 front page. Many have still to forgive the magazine for giving credence to the image of Africa as a place solely of death, destruction and dictators.

Perhaps writing about ‘Africa’s hopeful economies’ is The Economist’s way of asking forgiveness.  In any event, it does a good job of debunking the one-dimensional image of Africa as a place of misery and despair. At a gloomy time for the world economy, the good news is out of Africa. Over the past decade, six of the world’s ten fastest-growing economies were African. Africa is growing faster than most of East Asia, and it is not all related to the commodity boom. Oil-rich countries like Angola and Equatorial Guinea are experiencing phenomenal growth rates, but so are resource-poor Ethiopia and Rwanda. While Western stock exchanges appear to be in perpetual decline and turmoil, investment returns in many African countries far exceed what is achievable elsewhere, even in other emerging markets. Ghana’s stock exchange, for example, had the best performing index worldwide in 2008, and has been a top-performing index in emerging stock markets for several years.

There has also been much attention recently to Africa’s growing middle class. The African Development Bank earlier this year declared that one in three Africans is now middle class, and that by 2060 over 1 billion Africans would be classified as middle class, spending between $2-$20 a day. To be sure, $2 is not much by Western standards, and is sometimes barely above the poverty line; but as The Economist points out, it potentially signals a more equitable growth. The African Development Bank’s interpretation also provides a useful contrast to the dominant story of Africa as home to only ‘the bottom billion’—that is, to famine and hopelessness.

This is not, of course, to say that all is well on the African continent. How could it be? Africa consists of over 50 countries, is home to one billion people, and is more than three times the size of the United States. There cannot be one story about Africa, as either entirely hopeless or hopeful. When speaking of Europe, nobody in their right mind would treat Italy as representative of Sweden, or the entire EU; but somehow we readily accept gross generalizations of Africa, where countries as different as Nigeria and Kenya, the DRC and Ghana come to represent a uniform Africa. We urgently need less reductive and more differentiated stories about Africa; stories that recognize the diversity of the continent and its peoples; stories that realise that because things go wrong in one place, that does not mean that they go wrong everywhere in Africa. As The Economist now admits, Africa was never in reality the hopeless continent, and this is even less so today.


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