It’s official: Africa is trendy

Welcome, trendsetters!

Good news for all of us: according to the cover story in the Sunday Style section of the New York Times, Africa is finally fashionable!

Actually, Alex Williams is slightly more cautious than that, noting “And much as it may strain the limits of good taste to say it, Africa — rife with disease, famine, poverty and civil war — is suddenly ‘hot.'”

Evidence of Africa’s newfound hotness: Clay Aiken’s trip to Uganda, Jessica Simpson’s trip to Kenya, Madonna’s stage show which features images of AIDS orphans, Angelina Jolie’s decision to give birth in Namibia, Gwyneth Paltrow’s declaration that she’s African, complete with war paint and a beaded necklace.

There’s a question many African and Afrophile bloggers found themselves asking during the conversations around Live8: Is the attention worth the distortion? It’s tempting to dismiss celebrity interest in Africa out of hand, because it seems so superficial, and sometimes, so stereotyped. But there’s another argument: when Brad and Angelina travel to Namibia, it helps put the nation on the map, introducing it as a tourist destination. When Madonna puts AIDS orphans on the screen behind her gyrations and mock-crucifiction, it might get people thinking about a set of issues they’d otherwise never engage with. Celebrities may be able to convince people to pay attention, to read the news, to give money.

On the other hand, the picture of Africa the celebrities are helping to paint is exactly the picture folks like Emeka Okafor are working to dispel – Africa as helpless, sick, impoverished, in critical need of outside help and assistance. For those of us working with African entrepreneurs, trying to attract foreign investment to the continent, this sort of attention can work at cross-purposes, reinforcing the idea of “Africa as crisis”.

What I found most worrisome in Williams’s article was the explanation he offered for celebrity interest in Africa: moral clarity. Celebrities – and people interested in celebrities – are interested in Africa because it’s easy to tell the good guys from the bad guys: “…the seemingly unambiguous nature of Africa’s needs can be unifying.”

Unfortunately, as in the rest of the world, moral clarity is often in short supply in Africa.

Many problems seem unambiguous until you look closely at them. Darfur, at first glance, is an unambiguous genocide, with Arabs indiscriminately killing black Africans. As Dr. Richard Lobban points out in “The Complexities of Darfur“, that’s only part of the story – a more complex story involves armed struggle against the Sudanese army, the use of proxy militias, tension between Sudan and Chad, resource misallocation within Sudan, tension within the Sudanese army between officers and soldiers, and ecological crisis. Is the story of Darfur more or less compelling when you know who the JEM and the SLA are? And if you think Darfur is complicated, the unfolding situation in Somalia, or the African World War that took place in the DRC both require scorecards to tell the players apart.

Even less ambiguous situations, like the plight of AIDS orphans, get more complicated when we look for solutions. Yes, it’s critically important that orphaned children receive support to continue their schooling. But who administers these programs? Do we give money to corrupt governments, knowing that only a fraction of the money is going to make it to the beneficiaries, while another fraction lines the pockets of government bureacrats? Give it to NGOs on the ground, knowing that they don’t have the staff and management capacity to put that money to work? Give it to US and European NGOs, and raise the question of whether paying lots of wealthy white people with money intended for African children is a misalocation of money or a return to a form of colonialism? Do we focus on keeping parents alive in the first place, providing subsidized treatment for AIDS drugs? Or do those subsidies reward US and European drug companies for overpricing their wares, using charitable money to increase their profits? Should we support compulsory licensing instead, demanding that drugs neccesary in African nations be available at affordable prices, even if it hurts pharma companies? And will pharma companies continue developing AIDS therapies if they are worried that their IP will be licensed away from them.

Fortunately, celebrities don’t have to answer those questions. Africa won’t be trendy for long, says celebrated New York cynic Michael Musto: “Just like a trendy restaurant lasts 18 months, so will interest in Africa.”

Unfortunately, civil wars, AIDS, malaria, water-borne diseases, illegal mining, small-arms trade and food insecurity will probably all still be problems in 18 months. Some trends just last longer than others, I guess.

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11 Responses to It’s official: Africa is trendy

  1. Anon says:

    Why there’s even a handy guide for your back pocket…

    Anon

  2. Kofi says:

    One of the major problems with the attention celebrities bring is that it is married to a specific image of Africa. Unfortunately without that image they are hardly ever drawn to the continent. We have to develop a system of converting that initial interest into a long-term relationship which gives us access to the resources thay have at their disposal. Then we can maintain things ourselves.

  3. Great post Ethan!

    I pretty much agree with your analysis and I commented a bit on it here.

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  6. Randi Neff says:

    I was just wondering if this Alex Williams is the same one who is a civil engineer from Auburn, Washington USA. The name sounds awfully familiar to me and I was wondering if you could share any info on the man. The Alex Williams I know was born in Malta and went to school in California. Married a Canadian and moved to the US about 5 years ago. He is currently building a shopping mall and a Hostel. Is this the one and the same Alex Williams?

    Thank You very much.
    Randi Neff
    r7neff@hotmail.com

  7. Ethan says:

    Randi, I have no idea – I’ve never met Alex Williams – this was a reaction to a newspaper article. An archive of Williams’s articles is available at http://query.nytimes.com/search/query?ppds=bylL&v1=ALEX%20WILLIAMS&fdq=19960101&td=sysdate&sort=newest&ac=ALEX%20WILLIAMS&inline=nyt-per

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