Africans ask: 'Why isn't anyone telling the good news?'
JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA — The way most newspapers and TV news tell it, there's little going on in Africa except poverty, famine, disease, and even genocide.
But there's more to Africa than hardship. And there are growing efforts to try to present a fuller, more rounded picture of this continent to the world.
• Africa's economies grew by more than 5 percent last year - their biggest expansion in eight years. Central Africa's oil boom spurred 14.4 percent growth for that region.
• Ghana's stock exchange is regularly one of the highest-performing markets in the world; in 2003, it was No. 1, gaining 144 percent, according to one analysis.
• Exports to the US from 37 African nations jumped 88 percent last year, to $26.6 billion. Jeans made in Lesotho are sold in US stores. Also, flowers from Kenya and vegetables from Senegal are regularly available in European shops.
• Use of cellphones and the Internet is growing faster in Africa than anywhere else, according to the United Nations.
These and other statistics are getting more focus amid efforts to boost Africa's image - along with the world's willingness to invest in the continent.
A prominent challenge came this week from Rwandan President Paul Kagame. Speaking in Kenya at the International Press Institute's annual gathering, he defied the media to tell the whole story.
"I urge you to play your role, not merely as watchdogs and whistle-blowers, but as advocates and educators in our joint venture to make Africa ... a better place," he said.
He further argued the negative portrayal hurts Africa's efforts to fix its problems. "One of the reasons why Africa has not been able to attract enough foreign direct investment, which we need for our development, is the constant negative reporting," he added.
For sure, "Africa has other things going on besides wars and famines," says longtime journalist Carol Pineau, but traditionally the foreign media haven't focused on them. For instance, she says, "We make it sound as though there is no economic life in Africa."
Her documentary, "Africa: Open for Business," is a counterpoint. It was funded by the World Bank and screened at this year's Cannes Film Festival in France. It highlights 10 entrepreneurs profiting in Africa, including a cellphone magnate in Congo who worked with local residents to scrounge parts for a transmission tower, which they constructed amid a rebel attack on the capital. Now there are legions of cellphone users in Congo.
And some mainstream media are already changing their coverage.
"Africa is shifting more and more toward becoming a business story," says John Chiahemen, chief Reuters correspondent in Southern Africa and chairman of the board of the Foreign Correspondents' Association of Southern Africa. (This reporter is also a member of that board.) Increasingly, he says, Reuters is focusing on "opportunities in Africa" because the continent "has never looked more promising as a business destination."
He cites Barclays Bank's pending $5.5 billion purchase of 60 percent of South Africa's largest bank, Absa, as evidence of the changing climate. It is Barclays' biggest investment outside Britain in its 100-year history. Observers say it shows even conservative bankers can be bullish on Africa.
Another news-balancing effort comes from a pair of South African men. Fed up with overwhelmingly negative cocktail-party talk about their country, they developed books and videos called "South Africa: The Good News."
They reminded South Africans of the country's progress since the start of its multiracial democracy in 1994. For instance, only 63 percent of South Africans were functionally literate back then. Now 80 percent are. The country's notoriously high murder rate has decreased by 25 percent since 1994. And South Africa ranks 25th among the world's economies, putting it in the top 15 percent.
Now the two men are turning their efforts to the rest of the continent, including focusing on the growth in multiparty democracy as evidence of dramatic progress. In the 1980s just a handful of free and fair elections took place in Africa. There were at least that many last year alone, although there are still numerous dictatorial, even tyrannical, regimes in places like Zimbabwe and Sudan.
Indeed, context is key to getting to the truth about Africa, argues Brett Bowes, one of the "Good News" founders. Many places in Africa may be a mess, he says, "But the question is: Was this a bigger mess five years ago or not?" In other words, has there been progress?
One thing blocking a fuller perception of Africa's progress may be implicit racism, argues Charles Stith, former US ambassador to Tanzania, now at Boston University.
There's a historic framework, he says, "that by definition sees Africa ... and Africans as inferior and negative," and makes most stories about the continent negative.
By contrast, he says, "China has problems, but we see and hear other things about China. Russia has problems, yet we see and read other things about Russia." That same standard, he says, should apply to Africa.
To be sure, there's plenty of poverty and suffering across Africa. "We absolutely need coverage of wars and famines," says Pineau, the filmmaker. For instance, not to cover Sudan's Darfur province, where the US says genocide has occurred, "would be criminal."
But she turns the issue back to US readers and reporters and cites the Columbine school shooting, the Oklahoma City bombing, and other US tragedies, asking: "How would you feel as an American if all anyone ever talked about was the disasters of America?"