ADDIS ABABA AND GENEVA — For years, Africa has been synonymous with catastrophe, famine, and war. Now it is beginning to gain a new image.
Major international organizations like the United Nations are seeing embryonic signs of hope following a long period of "Afro-pessimism" about the world's most impoverished and conflict-ridden continent.
Democratic and free-market reforms after decades of heavy state control in some of the richer African countries are producing muted optimism for the sub-Saharan region of 600 million people.
"I've made a tour of certain countries in Africa," Renato Ruggiero, director general of the Geneva-based World Trade Organization, told the Monitor recently. "It's a continent where we can see some success stories developing."
Africa has a rate of return on foreign investment 25 percent higher than any other part of the world, according to the United States Commerce Department.
In the past few years, annual growth rates in three countries have exceeded 8 percent. Eight countries have achieved between 6 and 8 percent growth. A dozen countries have averaged between 3 and 6 percent. In addition, 35 countries have begun economic reform measures to support private-sector development.
Some of the biggest success stories have been in southern or West Africa - notably South Africa, Botswana, Ghana, and the Ivory Coast.
But success is relative on a continent that claims 33 of the world's 47 least-developed countries. Four major civil wars have ended, but a half-dozen continue. Coups and ethnic strife abound. Several countries cannot feed themselves without foreign aid. The foreign debt of sub-Saharan Africa totals hundreds of billions of dollars.
In some African nations, economic growth is higher than most industrialized countries. But often that growth starts from a low base, and population increases far outstrip economic growth.
Abdelharim Dirar, who heads the economic section of the Addis Ababa-based Organization of Africa Unity (OAU), notes that solid economic growth in Ethiopia for the third consecutive year was not as impressive as it sounded.
"You started at an average [per capita] yearly income of $94 a year. Even if Ethiopia grew for 40 years at 6 percent, the average income of Ethiopians would still be very low," he said.
After being ignored for years after the end of the cold war, Africa is beginning to garner more international attention.
United Nations Security Council President and US Ambassador Madeleine Albright has paid several visits to Africa. And the late Ron Brown was the first American Commerce Secretary to make a tour of African countries in 15 years.
Many talks at the meeting of the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), now under way in South Africa, are focusing on how to save Africa from being sidelined in the globalization and liberalization sweeping world trade.
However, by far the biggest signal of confidence in Africa's future was the March 15 launch of a 10-year, $25 billion UN special initiative on Africa.
The initiative - the organization's largest-ever coordinated development action - seeks to mobilize support by all UN agencies to promote education, health care, peace, better governance, and water and food security.
"The chances of Africa emerging from its development crisis are better now than in many years," said UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali at the launch, which was attended by senior OAU and World Bank officials. "Now it is time for us to have a new partnership .... no stone will be [left] unturned to ensure the actions taken today will translate into concrete actions."
Whether concrete actions will ensue is the big question, critics say.
International organizations increasingly say African governments should find their own solutions for economic growth, rather than be dictated to. One answer is to promote regional trade organizations, but these are largely ineffectual from Cape Town to Cairo. And senior economists in the UN say that debt relief is critical to helping African countries alleviate poverty.
Africa is awash with economic woes holding back development - commodity-based economies, lack of trade advantages, bloated state sectors, foreign-exchange controls that discourage investment, a low manufacturing base, uncompetitive industry markets, capital flights, corruption, and mismanagement.
Economic indicators like inflation and interest rates or taxes and stock markets are often irrelevant in countries where the average citizen trades goats for grains and rarely handles money.
South Africa is touted as one of the great success stories, with a growth rate that has increased in recent years from 0 to 3.5 percent. But trade liberalization alone was not responsible for its achievements.
President Nelson Mandela warned as he opened the UNCTAD conference that greater market access and free or fair trade hold scant promises for countries producing few goods and services with which to trade and with no market power to pursue their interests.
"The danger is that, left to its own devices, the current [world trade] regime can only entrench this inequality and widen the gap between rich and poor nations," he said.