The fuller picture

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In his 2001 speech to the Labour Party conference, then British Prime Minister Tony Blair called for a concerted global effort to supporting Africa; a commitment that aimed to end poverty and political tyranny on the continent. He said,

“The state of Africa is a scar on the conscience of the world, but if the world focused on it, we could heal it.”

His was a bold and ambitious vision. If the world sought agreement on ending poverty in Africa, the world would be able to do it. He encouraged more aid to the continent as well as the cancellation of debts and untied trade and investment. From the Africans, he requested no more excuses for dictatorships, abuses of human rights and bad governance. True democracy was a key component to this healing process.

An all-too-familiar story

There was plenty of virtue and goodwill in Mr Blair’s words, no doubt. However, one cannot get away from the ‘lecturer speaking to his students’ kind of style adopted by the former Prime Minister. It is interesting to note that as Britain and other Western nations drafted lesson plans for Africa to follow, China on the other hand continued to grow its ties with the continent through a plethora of deft business deals and political gestures. From 2001 onwards, the Chinese presence in countries such as Sudan, Angola and Zambia would continue to flourish. The involvement of China in industries such as mining, infrastructure, energy, agriculture and manufacturing would grow exponentially.

Now, I don’t mean to attack Mr Blair’s words for the sake of it. There are countless examples of poverty-reducing, human development-enhancing initiatives that have gone to positively affect the lives of numerous people in different countries on the continent. I can think of work carried out by development agencies such as the UK’s Department for International Development (DfID), the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), the Dutch Ministry of Development Cooperation, President George W. Bush’s Malaria Initiative and several more.

However, Mr Blair’s words are interesting because they add to a long tradition of presenting the African continent as the prime example of desperate poverty, darkness and despair in our world today. That, for a long time, has been the global Africa narrative: a continent full of potential and overflowing with valuable resources yet ravaged by self-inflicted civil wars and unable to fulfil its potential. As the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie put it,

“If I had not grown up in Nigeria and if all I knew about Africa was from popular images, I too would think that Africa was a place of beautiful landscapes, beautiful animals, and incomprehensible people fighting senseless wars, dying of poverty and AIDS, unable to speak for themselves.”

Issues relating to lack of food security and access to healthcare do plague many households on the continent yet that has never been the full story. On the macro level, these two issues affect the continent significantly more than any other region of the world. And that is the reality. Urban slum dwellers often have to cram themselves into overpopulated areas where the sanitation is poor and epidemics are not far off. My bone of contention is however with the fact that one facet of the broader African story has over the last few decades become the unquestioned global Africa narrative.

It’s a bone of contention for me because it demeans large sections of the continent’s population who are striving and thriving on their talent and initiative. It’s a bone of contention for me more significantly because it simply is a half truth and doesn’t present the full picture.

Telling the fuller story

This desire to present the fuller picture as well as a love for business, particularly social enterprise, forms the foundation of this project. During the next few months, I will be profiling five young people from different African countries. They will give the readers of this blog a glimpse into the ways they are seizing opportunities to do business in their respective countries, using their initiative, gifts and talents.

It’s important to remember that approximately a billion people live on the continent across 55 different countries – countries that are often very different culturally, ethnically, historically and economically – so we should be mindful of not speaking about the continent in generic terms as if it were one big country.

According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), six out of ten of the world’s fastest-growing economies are in Sub-Saharan Africa. This is exciting because economic growth can translate into poverty-reduction. But not automatically. And this is where electorates and their governments need to formulate clear, robust and achievable country-specific development solutions that will benefit the majority. Impressive economic growth rates of 6 or 7% of GDP per annum need to translate into a significant change in human development and poverty reduction. According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Africa Human Development Report 2012,

“Sustaining high growth rates was important in Asia, but it was not enough. The character of growth, not just its rate, matters for lowering the poverty rate. In Sub-Saharan Africa, even for the same rate of growth, there is historical evidence that growth has not been converted into poverty reduction as effectively as in other developing regions.”

So the single Africa narrative that we’ve become accustomed to has got to be challenged. And even though positive steps are being made in certain areas, plenty more work needs to be done to ensure that the economic growth the continent is currently enjoying translates into poverty reduction and the enhancement of lives.

I hope you will enjoy reading about each of the five young people. I am. Keep your eyes peeled.


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