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Today’s lesson looks at (mis-)perceptions of Africa, as well as the argument that these perceptions lead to an inappropriate attitude towards African countries, especially in terms of foreign aid.

First, the perception. Ranging from the unfortunately ignorant (or, more charitably, careless) descriptions of Africa as a country to the usual pessimistic views of Africa as a place of despair and hopelessness, as well as the impression due to map proportions and projections (as an aside, this and this are humorous looks at the debate over map projections) that present Africa as much smaller than it is.

Much of this was of course grounded in the stark reality of the corruption, chaos and violence following the rapid decolonisation after WW2 (made worse by Cold War influences); to deny the existence of such obvious problems would be far worse. The argument made by Andrew Mwenda is not that these problems are non-existent, but rather that an overwhelming emphasis on such portrayals, encouraged by a media penchant for the sensational and dramatic and feel-good campaigns like ONE, means that the public consciousness dwells far too much on this pessimistic view, and thus encourages the treatment of Africa as a permanent economic basket-case, perpetually in crisis mode. As pointed out by articles such as those of The Economist, amongst others, this unfairly ignores the progress that has been made in Africa and discourages the investment that African countries need, while encouraging the mistakenly homogeneous view of Africa that leads to the mental conflation of the many diverse countries as one benighted entity.

Mwenda (and many others) further argue that such aid rests on the erroneous understanding of the problem as merely one of a poverty cycle that needs to be broken with an infusion of cash, when it is the aid itself which distorts political and economic incentives, shifting it away from a natural accountability that a government would normally require for legitimacy (and thus continued survival), instead perpetuating a system of patronage and corruption that is more concerned with addressing the concerns of external donors than those of the people being governed. (This central idea of focusing on incentives is a powerful argumentative approach that is one of, if not the main appeal of an economic perspective on issues.)

Not included in the lesson, but a very similar problem, is the issue of food aid, which, when combined with significant agricultural subsidies in the developed world, effectively makes it impossible for local African producers to compete. Again, the caveat here is that food aid makes perfect sense in an emergency situation — but becomes an impediment to economic growth and development when a crisis becomes the norm.

Most strikingly, arguably the most successful alleviation of poverty in (recent?) history occurred with the rise of China, easily outstripping any comparable achievements in reducing poverty due to aid. While not all countries may want to (or even can) follow China’s model of development, the basic principle of growth and development instead of aid is clearly superior in terms of lifting people out of poverty — and, of course, China is hardly the only country to have experienced rapid economic development; it is simply the one that has done so successfully with such an overwhelmingly large population.

This is now coming full circle with the rise of Chinese influence in Africa — which is not in itself new, but has certainly accelerated and grown to a much more noticeable degree with the increase in Chinese economic clout. Responsible for significant construction of infrastructure and investment ranging from large-scale efforts from state-linked enterprises like mining to surprisingly small-scale mundane activities like chicken farming (as well as the numerous Chinese blue-collar workers working on the larger projects), the Chinese presence has become very visible in Africa. Much of this is also due to the contrast with Western attitudes towards African countries; aid, beyond encouraging a patronising mindset, has also tended to come attached with conditions regarding corporate or civil-rights concerns which are far more inconvenient for less democratically-minded rulers, and the Chinese indifference to such concerns is one factor which has changed the dynamic of such cash-flows.

That, though, has not stopped accusations that the Chinese are effectively acting as neo-imperialists out to exploit the continent’s raw materials for their own benefit. While some decry this as simply Western media bias against China, the core motivation is arguably similar enough: a demand for raw materials. Even the construction of infrastructure is not at all dissimilar to European efforts, which were motivated by a desire to make it easier to transport the extracted resources to ports. Nevertheless, there are clear differences: most obviously, there is no military operation taking over countries (although it could just as easily be pointed out that China is smart enough to understand that this would not be worth the trouble anyway); also, much of the business is entrepreneurial and smaller-scale, involving ordinary Chinese people, and is not limited to large-scale state-based efforts. Certainly, it is comprehensive enough now that a whole range of complex issues and perspectives are now present.

Whatever one makes of the Chinese influence, one clear consequence is its effect on Western attitudes towards Africa. The loss of what was arguably a monopoly of influence (if we treat the ‘Western’ countries as a more or less common bloc) has provoked a perhaps belated response which has moved away from the traditional aid-based approach. As against that, some have argued that the problem of aid has been overstated, and that this risks jeopardising the real benefits of aid for many, while (often at the same time) arguing for reforming aid efforts instead, such as by improving the oversight attached to aid, or delivering aid directly instead of through corrupt governments. More ambitiously, organisations like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation have advocated adopting business standards to make aid efforts more efficient. Ultimately, though, the whole point of aid, much like medicine, is to make itself obsolete, and the economic development of countries, whether through aid or simply business and trade, will be what African countries are looking to achieve.

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