Hopeful continent? The Economist goes long on Africa

In May 2000, the front page of The Economist ran the words “hopeless continent” above an image of an anonymous black man holding a weapon, cropped in the shape of Africa. The accompanying article focused on all the things that the United Nations and other international actors could or could not do to help the poor hopeless Africans. It contained cringe-worthy sentences like this:

These acts are not exclusively African—brutality, despotism and corruption exist everywhere—but African societies, for reasons buried in their cultures, seem especially susceptible to them.

I have trouble believing that was written one decade ago, rather than half a century ago. Since then, the venerable news magazine has added a regular “Middle East & Africa” section, as well as a blog on Africa called Baobab. These are vast improvements over their previous habit of cramming occasional Africa stories under the “International” heading.

This week, The Economist cemented its new outlook on the continent with a lead article titled, “Africa rising: The hopeful continent,” and an accompanying piece on Africa’s economic growth. These articles read like the bizzaro-world version of the earlier coverage. The list of hopeful factors is long: improved governance, better health and educational outcomes, mobile technology, demographic changes, foreign investment, intra-African trade and economic integration, and more. Much more attention is given to the positive actions taken by African entrepreneurs and even politicians, as opposed to foreign powers. Ongoing problems are acknowledged, but with much more nuance.

One thing that hasn’t changed is the magazine’s love of hokey graphics. The image at the right accompanied this week’s articles. The continued reliance on Africa-shaped images is suggestive of the challenge that this form of journalism is still trying to overcome: finding the right level of abstraction. Africa is a big place. As the always-serious Lant Pritchett argued in the same magazine:

Perhaps the best thing the developed world could do for the growth prospects of Africa is to stop talking about the growth prospects of Africa.

Are mammals cute? My little dog is cute as the dickens but the star nosed mole gives beastly a bad name. The word “mammal” is the wrong abstraction for discussing cute.

In other words: a pronouncement on the prospects of “Africa” will always be confused. You have to move down to at least the regional level, maybe even national or sub-national in some cases. I wouldn’t criticize this particular publication too much for this. Any effort to talk about the continent as a coherent whole — especially in a 1000-word news article — is going to run into problems. If you scan my blog’s archives, you could probably catch me making the same mistake. At least these recent articles are more positive. As I’ve mentioned before, perhaps simplistic hopefulness is a worthy antidote to simplistic hopelessness.

Abstracting your analysis to the continental level is bad enough. Far worse is making policy prescriptions at that level. One sentence from this week’s lead article stood out as an egregious oversimplification of this sort. I’ve emphasized it in the paragraph below.

Africa still needs deep reform. Governments should make it easier to start businesses and cut some taxes and collect honestly the ones they impose. Land needs to be taken out of communal ownership and title handed over to individual farmers so that they can get credit and expand. And, most of all, politicians need to keep their noses out of the trough and to leave power when their voters tell them to.

Land reform is an incredibly complicated and politically contentious issue. Local context and history matter a great deal. This article fails to even nod at those issues, while still feeling confident enough to make a recommendation. That strikes me as poor form.

Ultimately, the trend I want to highlight has nothing to do with these articles or with The Economist. This is one publication among many that’s giving increasing attention to parts of the world that it once ignored or marginalized. There’s more progress to be made in how the international media covers less developed countries, but progress is being made.

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P.S. Big hat tip to Ken Opalo, who beat me to the comparison of the old and new articles.