Is the glass half full or half empty? The folk wisdom suggests that the attitudes we bring to a subject influence our understanding and especially our outlook: whether we are positive or negative about future prospects.
Perhaps no subject so highlights the embedded attitudes of observers as the state of Sub-Saharan Africa. The poorest part of the world, Sub-Saharan Africa — or simply Africa for the sake of brevity — has lost ground, the only part of the world over the past 25 years where numbers of poor people have steadily increased. Africa, not surprisingly, is marginalized from the world economy. The region receives less foreign investment than any other. Economic growth, while showing respectable gains of 5 percent last year, remains slower than China, India and other emerging growth regions.
The trouble with Africa attracts the attention of book writers (see my review published in July in Salon), and philanthropists. Even China, the locomotive of the world economy, is paying closer attention to Africa than ever (see incisive report).
Informed observers readily agree that Africa is at a turning point, deserving the world’s renewed attention, but they rarely agree on which direction Africa is turning. More turmoil, disease and disasters as global warming, deaths from AIDS and massive electricity and energy shortages conspire to increase human misery? Or a slow, gradual working out of problems, expanding isolated pockets of success now scattered throughout the region? In short, no one can agree on whether Africans are staring at the abyss or bracing themselves for a big leap forward?
I’ve got a confession: I don’t know myself, and I’ve spent the better part of 6 years, mainly as a journalist and sometimes as an academic research and policy analyst, trying to sort out the question of whither Africa. Part of the difficulty is that there are many Africas: the sub-regions of East and West, South and Central have different histories, social patterns, economic strengths and geographic pluses and minuses. Oil-producing countries such as Nigeria are gushing with wealth, richer than ever, while landlocked resource-poor countries, such as Malawi, are suffering unprecedented poverty and deprivation. African leaders at once declare they are on the threshold of entering a new era of self-reliance, while decrying foreigner for failing to do more to help Africans solve their problems.
I try to make sense out of Africa’s cross-currents by first observing and understanding what works, on both an individual and societal level. What works can be scaled. What works suggests that Africans have strengths they can build on. What works offers clues about where reformers go next. Only after I absorbing the lessons from what’s working in Africa, do I look at what doesn’t work. I derive a picture of Africa and Africans based on the functional, the pragmatic, the effective, I believe I am better positioned to put what’s going wrong in context when I see what’s going right.
To be sure, a lot is going wrong in Africa. Even relative success stories, such as reform-minded Uganda, are home to awful messes: lingering civil wars, corruption, repression of women on a grand scale, vast inequities between the rich and everyone else. Indeed, the troubles in Africa are so daunting, so numerous and sometimes so singular in relation to the rest of the world that skepticism, pessimism and even outright tears are a rational response.
Yet personally I delight in the company of Africans and I have yet to visit a part of the region where I have not found â€“ even during times of hardship and war â€“ redeeming qualities. Africans are generous, spiritual, strong and big-hearted. They endure setbacks that could reasonably be expected to rob them of hope. In difficult times, Africans can still greet one another with a smile and opportunities for laughter are plentiful. Even the miseries of African life, and the flagrant abuses and failures of African leaders, are fodder for humor, giving life to the old Fante saying, â€œUse it for laughter.â€
Indeed, sometimes laughter is the only response to the spectacle of Africans trying to explain â€“ and explain away — their predicament. Consider the following March 31 report, from Reuters, printed in full below:
Nigerian soccer referees OK’d to take bribes Official: Bribery acceptable, but refs shouldn’t let cash influence decisions
LAGOS, Nigeria – Soccer referees in Nigeria can take bribes from clubs but should not allow them to influence their decisions on the field, a football official said on Friday.
Fanny Amun, acting Secretary-General of the Nigerian Football Association, said bribery was common in the Nigerian game.
â€œWe know match officials are offered money or anything to influence matches and they can accept it,â€ Amun told Reuters on Friday.
Amun first made the statement earlier in the week to a soccer seminar in the capital Abuja, prompting protests from other officials.
â€œReferees should only pretend to fall for the bait, but make sure the result doesnâ€™t favor those offering the bribe,â€ Amun said.
At the seminar, Nigerian league chairman Oyuiki Obaseki reprimanded referees for poor quality match reports, saying that bribery was to blame.
â€œThe quality of your reports have not done our league any good, so please desist from corrupt practices,â€ he told delegates.
Despite a high-profile campaign to stamp out graft in the impoverished African country, Nigeria consistently ranks among the most corrupt countries in the world — and soccer is no exception.
Copyright 2006 Reuters Limited.