by Conor Godfrey on March 1, 2011
For the past several weeks pundits have been scouring the world for countries that might, in any way, shape or form, relate to the events unfolding in North Africa.
Darts have landed on China, Iran, all the countries of the Middle East, as well as the remaining Eastern European and Central Asian despots.
On this blog and elsewhere there has also been a lot of talk about what the revolutions north of the Sahara mean for Africa.
But wait—I thought this all started in Africa?
Is there really any debate as to whether or not Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya are on the African continent?
Let me start with the punch line: Africa is more of an idea than a place.
An idea anchored loosely in geography, but far more in psychology.
To illustrate what I mean, I have mocked up a conversation I find myself in with astounding regularity. I currently work at an organization promoting U.S. – Africa trade.
When pushing the new Africa to skeptical investors the conversation often goes something like the following:
The investor first expresses skepticism that Africa fits their firm’s risk profile.
The Africa expert then points out that the African reality has probably surpassed the investor’s outdated perception of the continent: in fact, 6/10 of the fastest growing economies in the world from 2000-20010 were in Africa.
This will momentarily compete for space in the investor’s brain with the national geographic special he was watching last night as he went to bed.
“Which countries?” he might ask.
“That is all very interesting” says the investor, but, “…many of those countries are simply benefiting from an increase in oil and commodity prices. And my firm does not like the lack of transparency in most of those nations.”
The Africa expert is undeterred.
Well, “Do you know that Africa boasts a number of countries whose good governance ratings exceed many other countries with whom you already do business?
According to Transparency International, Botswana ranks 33rd in word in terms of transparency, with many other African Countries falling above the median– Mauritius (39th), Cape Verde (45th), Seychelles (49th), South Africa (54th), Namibia (56th), Tunisia (59th), Ghana (62nd).
These countries all outrank China (tied 78th), Thailand (78th), Brazil (69th), Greece (78th) and many other countries in Eastern Europe, Asia, and Latin America. Find the transparency International corruption rankings here. ”
Still, the investor remains unconvinced.
“Well, those were intriguing comparisons, but some of those island nation’s with good governance are more Indian than they are African, and we all know that South Africa, Botswana and Ghana are outliers in terms of governance. I’m still not sold on Africa”
The Africa expert gives it one more go—“Mr. Investor, do you know that Africa is growing so fast that there are 240 million people who today can only meet their basic needs who will become consumers with disposable income by 2015?
Or, that Africa’s level of urbanization is comparable to those of India and China when those countries’ growth rates began to accelerate?
Or, that North Africa has the most favorable labor demographics in the world, with large numbers of highly educated young people?”
“North Africa?” exclaims the investor. “You mean the Middle East?”
This type of Socratic exchange on nominally African opportunities leaves people with the idea that Africa refers only to the bush, to places with anemic growth, periodic violence, and a rapacious class of elites.
Anything that does not fit that mold on the African continent is ascribed to something or somewhere else—oil, the influence of a former colonial power, similarity to another region, historical idiosyncrasies, anything to avoid the cognitive dissonance generated by the thought of an exciting, stable, growing African economy.
Note: Nothing this archetypal investor said was 100% inaccurate, his comments simply revealed a common bias in our thinking about the African continent.
This is the most diverse continent on the planet, and each of Africa’s 53 (54 with South Sudan) nations manifests that diversity in different ways.
Different historical trading partners, different chief exports, different histories of exploitation and resistance, etc… .
But all of these nations are, to borrow a popular cliché, made in Africa. They are shaped by the geography and cultural heritage of the African continent, from the sands of the Sahara to the waters of Lake Malawi, from teeming urbanity in Nairobi slums to Dogon cliff villages in Mali.
Africa lays claim to all of this—successes included.