Sunday, September 19, 2010

Wake Up and Smell the Diversity

One of my pet peeves about media coverage of Africa, besides its focus on war, poverty and corruption is the absurd generalization of everything from culture to indicators. I just observed a particularly irresponsible example of this phenomenon on the BBC website. In writing about emigration from some African counties to Europe the BBC attempted to present some “ key facts” about the differences in a few indicators of standards of living between Sub-Saharan African and the Eurozone. They did so by placing all Sub-Saharan African countries in the same group. Does it make sense to come up with life expectancy figures for Sub-Saharan Africa when the numbers vary from 63 years from birth in Togo to 45 years in Lesotho (World Bank 2008)? For starting a business it takes 3 days in Rwanda and 213 days in Guinea Bissau (World Bank 2009). Using general statistics for the whole region is less than inaccurate. It's seriously misleading and it works to perpetuate the other negative stereotypes already reported by the media about Africa.

In contrast to the blatant generalizations of the BBC, The Economist magazine's website published a short piece by economist Lant Pritchett as part of a series that asks various development thinkers the question, “Is Africa Poised For Steady, Rapid Growth?” Pritchett's answer is refreshing. He starts by asking “Are mammals cute?” to illustrate the silly over-simplicity of the question. He goes on to say:
Take the 45 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. Over 2000-2005 the average growth rate was 2.2%—exactly the global average—but the standard deviation among African countries was 6.1%—much higher than the global variance. This is a terrible aggregate. All knowing that country X is "African" has done for me is increase the variance—I am not sure whether it was growing very fast (as were Sierra Leone and Mozambique) or collapsing (as were Liberia and Cote d'Ivoire).

Talking about "Africa" enjoying steady, rapid growth is dangerous as in the foreseeable future there are likely to be countries with good prospects and countries in various states of disarray. Tagging the good growth countries with the same name as the bad might drag down expectations.

Another attempt to demonstrate economic progress in Africa and distinguish the lions from the laggards is a new book by Steve Radelet called Emerging Africa: How 17 Countries Are Leading the Way published by the Center for Global Development. I haven't read it so I'm not sure if its a fair representation of the economic situation and possibilities for the countries it covers, but regardless its a pragmatic approach to development in Africa. I'd say its worth a look.

Hopefully the media and the general public will soon get the idea that it's unfair an inaccurate to simply make generalizations about Africa. Perhaps the West should stop expecting people to know every detail of its history and culture while making serious generalizations (especially negative ones) about other parts of the world. Instead let's actually make the effort to learn about the diversity in different parts of the world. Especially when it comes to Africa it's time to wake up an smell the differences. Having lived in parts of East, West and now Southern Africa, I can tell you there are plenty of differences among African regions and countries. With information so readily available on the internet there is no longer an excuse for lazy generalizations.

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