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Paint the Entire Picture

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.

JTV
Norwood, NC

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. Heather #

    Great post JT. Very glad you’re back blogging! I’m not sure if you’ve read this: http://www.granta.com/Magazine/92/How-to-Write-about-Africa/Page-1

    but Binyavanga Wainaina hits upon what you’re talking about as well. It’s not just daily news that often does the continent an injustice, but historical and popular literature as well…

    July 21, 2010
  2. John T. Vaughn #

    Heather, thanks for reading! I actually have seen that piece by Binyavanga Wainaina, though it was some time ago. At any rate, he’s succinct, and it’s an accurate article. Hope you’re well and enjoying DC this summer.

    July 22, 2010
  3. Hi John,

    Very nice post. I agree wholeheartedly that the pictures primarily painted in the news media are slighted in one direction – further inlaying the stereotypes held in concrete.

    While I don’t interpret your post as disapproving of the pieces you mentioned in the NYTimes or National Geographic, I think it should be pointed out that they serve a very valuable purpose as well. I feel that often times these pieces may persuade people to donate to organizations such as MSF, SOS, etc. Further, is your argument more so in support of an influx of cash/resources to businesses in Africa to further development or rather just that the field of vision needs to be widened?

    I must say that I myself was rather upset when I saw such a massive up-tick in articles in the NYTimes World/Africa section surrounding the World Cup only to see them almost completely drop off again after it’s conclusion. It seems that the only countries that get any attention in their section are Somalia, Kenya, South Africa and occasionally the DRC.

    Any news sites you would recommend?

    Thanks for writing on these topics, love the blog.

    -Nick

    July 27, 2010
  4. John T. Vaughn #

    Nick,

    Thanks for reading, and for your comments. I agree, many of the articles in the NYTimes and National Geographic are beneficial in that they highlight intriguing people, places, and organizations in foreign (to many) cultures and geographies. Certainly, I applaud the efforts of MSF and similar groups.

    As to your question about the intent of my post – I seek more to expand the field of vision, as you say, and to specifically highlight private sector opportunities in sub-Saharan Africa. Development is extraordinarily complicated. At the least, we should attempt to take a full assessment of the situation – what is needed to address immediate and long-term social welfare needs, and what is needed to stimulate and drive long-term private sector development?

    What is the nature, and location of your work? Just curious, as you seem to have experience in this area.

    As to recommended reading sites – I may be old fashioned, but I generally stick with NY Times, Wall Street Journal, Reuters, The Economist, and, now and then, National Geographic.

    Cheers,
    JT

    July 28, 2010
  5. DT #

    I agree with this article. I worked in the D R Congo for 5 months and whilst I saw huge poverty I saw business opportunities too hampered only by corruption among Government officials, i.e. civil servants , regulatory officers etc.

    August 7, 2010
  6. Mathilde Verdier #

    What a wonderful post JT! It is quite unfortunate that the rest of the world has a tendency to look at Africa and ask the question: “what can we bring to Africa?” I think this notion needs some rethinking. The rest of the world could indeed learn a lot, particularly in times of a financial crisis, to ask instead “what can Africa bring to us?” I love how this much-needed outlook is presented in this article:
    http://edition.cnn.com/2011/BUSINESS/08/02/dayo.olopade.africa.innovation/

    To quote the author:

    Advanced economies can learn a thing or two from Africa’s innovative spirit: “There are ways of doing more with less that are very organic to the African ecosystem, and I think in general in the 21st century there’s a very important recognition that we need to all do more with less, and where better to look that the place that has been doing this for centuries?”

    “it’s very counter-intuitive to say that the place where we’ve poured trillions of dollars of aid, we’ve tried rock stars, we’ve tried celebrity-led campaign ads, we’ve tried all sorts of things to help Africa, but the tools to help Africa really lie within the region, and that’s really not necessarily aid flows but human capital.”

    January 2, 2012
    • John T. Vaughn #

      Thanks for reading, Mathilde! And, of course, for your insights.

      January 2, 2012

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