Gal Beckerman of the Columbia Journalism Review takes a swing at Vanity Fair’s Africa issue, alongside dozens of African and Afrophile bloggers, including yours truly. I found Beckerman’s framing of the issue very useful. Borrowing from Andrew Rice in The Nation, she observes that there are two primary ways in which discussions of African aid are usually presented: “the ‘governance-first’ camp ‘holds that Africans are impoverished because their rulers keep them that way,’ and the ‘poverty-first’ camp ‘believes African governments are so lousy precisely because their countries are so poor.'”
She goes on to suggest that the governance-first argument receives little attention in Western media – it comes out mostly in “angry and often cruelly written op-eds by one-time Peace Corps volunteer and travel writer Paul Theroux”. The emphasis instead is on the poverty-first camp, led by Bono and Jeffrey Sachs, which focuses on raising the consciousness of Western leaders and appealing on them to act on behalf of the continent. This can be a dangerous stance: “It’s a precarious role, one that can easily tip over into a paternalistic and condescending tone that’s not that far away from the worldview of colonial powers who saw themselves as engaged in a civilizing mission.”
I think Beckerman’s frame is a bit too narrow – specifically, it doesn’t address the dominant narrative we heard at TED Global: the idea that responsibility for Africa’s future rests firmly on the shoulders of individual African entrepreneurs, thinkers, writers and leaders. Both frames she and Rice offer leave individual Africans helpless – the problems are either the result of Western indifference or the incompetence of unaccountable leaders. In neither case can an individual hope to make a change – she or he is victim to forces beyond control.
It’s not Beckerman or Rice’s fault – these are, in fact, the dominant narratives over aid in Africa. But it opens the question of how to get this third narrative – the transformation of Africa will come from the entrepreneurial efforts, non-profit and for-profit, of Africans at home and abroad – into mainstream discussions of the continent. This perspective was thoroughly represented at TED Global in Arusha – quite possibly overrepresented – and yet it wasn’t well amplified in mainstream media coverage of the event. The Economist wrote a short piece on the event, but the author seemed troubled that there weren’t very many “hard-knuckle African politicians who often run the interior or defence ministry or act as kingmakers, sometimes bankrolling rotten presidents” at the event. That’s true, and it was a conscious decision of the organizers. As Hash of White African puts it, the Economist appears to be complaining “But, where were the Hippos?!“. He notes:
My question is why was this person from the Economist so fixated on there not being enough hippos? Is it because that’s the only way he sees things getting done in Africa? If he believes that is so, then he’s missing the bigger picture. The message at TED was that regardless of the hippos, the cheetahs will find a way to make change happen.
The story wasn’t that there weren’t any hippos at TED, it’s that they are becoming irrelevant.
I think Hash is optimistic – we’re a long way away from Hippo obscolenence, but I agree that’s the path we’re starting to follow. One of the challenges is to bring this Cheetah narrative into mainstream usage, so that we’re seeing stories framed in those terms, either embracing or challenging that concept, but not ignoring it.
TED organizer Chris Anderson responded to Hash’s post, characterizing the Economist piece as, “A lumbering, clumsy, hippo-like piece which completely missed the real story of TEDGlobal. Thank goodness for the blogosphere.” Indeed. And thanks to Chris for making sure so many bloggers were there document another narrative – it’s an object lesson for other conference organizers, especially those trying to engineer paradigm shifts…