Journalists are falling short in their coverage of sub-Saharan Africa. Thus, stereotypes of the region are reinforced, and the vast majority of Westerners fail to realize the potential private sector opportunities.
Two and a half weeks ago, I was at a wedding rehearsal dinner for my longtime friend, Daniel. I ended-up at a table at which I knew no one. As it happens, it was not long before the lady to my right began to inquire as to how I knew Daniel, my profession, where I lived, and on and on. After telling her that Daniel and I grew up best friends, and just as I mentioned I had recently returned from two years of work in Ethiopia, she blurted something to the effect of, ‘Ethiopia! I thought there was nothing there except starvation.’
She was a nice lady, and I am sure she did not intend to offend. This, unfortunately, has not been the first such comment of this nature since my return. Many people automatically assume the only work I could possibly have been doing in Ethiopia was missionary work or food aid relief. It blows their mind when I tell them that, among other things, I worked with an Ethiopian owned start-up focused on manufacturing appropriate technology, and small-scale renewable energy devices.
Most of this distorted view, I believe, stems from less than thorough journalism, which fails to connect the majority of Westerners with anything other than a superficial knowledge of developing world economies, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. Two recent examples highlight my point – one from the Lens blog of the NY Times, and one from National Geographic.
On the Lens blog of NY Times online I discovered, ‘Unsung Allies Battle Starvation in Africa,’ submitted by Karly Domb Sadof. The cliché title was enough to persuade me to click on the link.
Ms. Sadof used the space to highlight, ‘Frustration,’ a photojournalism piece by Marcus Bleasdale, which documents the work of Médicins Sans Frontièrs and others treating malnutrition in Djibouti. Frustration is part of a larger work by Médicins Sans Frontièrs and VII Photography to bring attention to the 195 million people globally suffering from malnutrition (http://www.starvedforattention.org/about.php).
Certainly, the photos were jarring, intriguing, heart-breaking. There is little doubt Médicins Sans Frontièrs is a highly dedicated, professional organization, which has, for a long time, provided high quality medical care to those in need.
Mr. Bleasdale, the photographer, was quoted, ‘I don’t take pictures because I like pretty pictures. I take pictures because I am concerned about what is happening in the world and I want people to understand it.’
I do not question Mr. Bleasdale’s motives, nor his talent. Neither do I question the work of Médicins Sans Frontièrs. Simply, I would challenge Mr. Bleasdale to likewise consider how he might portray the economic opportunities presenting themselves in sub-Saharan Africa. For people to understand, they need to see the entire picture.
And there is more to the picture. The Wall Street Journal, in Bulls Eye on Africa: Carlyle Chief Sees Upside, reported on July 2, ‘Speaking at a conference on emerging markets in Geneva on Wednesday (June 30), David Rubinstein, co-founder and managing director of Carlyle Group, said Africa stood alone in terms of growth potential.’
This past March, I grabbed a copy of National Geographic in a European airport. Opening the magazine as I settled in for the old trans-Atlantic hop, I delved into, ‘Africa’s Last Frontier,’ written by Neil Shea and photographed by Randy Olson (http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2010/03/omo-river/shea-text). Mr. Shea and Mr. Olson sought to highlight the plight of the indigenous tribes of the Omo Valley.
Again there was no lack of quality in the photography – the photographs were stunning, vivid, alluring. They depicted a wild, vast frontier, in which people kept traditional dress and customs, waged war with neighboring tribes, celebrated bravery and victory in battle, and ornamented one another (men and women alike) with scarring marks. The reporting provided snippets of life in the Omo Valley which, even having lived and worked throughout southern Ethiopia (though not explicitly in the Omo Valley – I missed my chance to travel there for well surveying last December), I was not entirely aware of.
Unfortunately, once again, I would imagine far more people read this romantic piece in National Geographic, which reinforced stereotypes of Africa – indigenous people, traditional dress (or lack thereof), constant tribal warfare, persistently surviving on the margin – than saw the slim, dull column in the Wall Street Journal highlighting the perceived opportunities abounding in Africa.
Job creation, business development, and foreign investment are every bit as integral to development as providing food aid relief, health care, and quality education. Aid, as we all know, is not sustainable long-term; at some point the private sector must begin to drive growth. This is slowly, but surely, beginning to happen in sub-Saharan Africa.
Journalists, your work is too important to neglect highlighting economic opportunities alongside challenges to development in sub-Saharan Africa. Help individuals, investors, and businesses to understand and see the entire picture. There is more to it than malnutrition, virgin frontiers and tribal conflicts – there is real, private sector growth taking hold.