Africa’s Tryst with Development: Gaps between Perceptions and Reality

Image: Brookings

Over the years various narratives have painted a range of views of Africa- as a continent in need of development, poverty, forced migration, diseases, low standard of living, new economic market and terrorism. One thing is certain is the remarkable transition of the African continent in the last few decades i.e. colonialism to globalisation. The continent of Africa has managed to build a destiny of its own countering various odds. Africa is still referred to as a continent that has nothing much to offer to the outside world but there is also a perception that the continent should be referred as a “continent of opportunity” rather than a “continent of threat”. With its array of contribution, the continent reflects both diversity and common threads that bind them together. It has been more than fifty years since the attainment of political independence, Africa is still viewed negatively owning to the internal conflicts. Though the concept of “Rising Africa” has received a positive response, the negative perceptions continue to have an upper hand.

Africa through the eyes of the outside world

Perception is a necessary component in the international arena and this exercise is necessary to understand how the rest of the world views us and has the potential to empower. Various perceptions have been built over time. Racial theories have been used to explain barbarism, backwardness and incapacity to develop that existed until the beginning of the 20th century. The perceptions about Africa has changed over time. In the 19th and 20th century, the outside world considered Africa as a “Dark continent” suppressed by the colonial masters.

Image source: Microform

The colonial activities said to be an act of development has served as an image for the African continent. Further, in the 21st century, the perceptions has changed as it focuses more on What Africans do and how they perceive themselves against the westerners. The internal imbalance has contributed to the negative perception of Africa as well as the people. The west has been defining Africa through political instabilities, corruption and war. Although this has been existing in many African countries still it’s not the ideal identity of the continent. Primarily, corruption has been a major challenge for most of the African countries and the continent tops the list of most corrupt regions in the world. It has been reported that Africa loses $148 billion, approximately 25 % of the GDP of the African states, to corruption each year.

Secondly, political instability and lack of effective leadership is another common perception of Africa. Though many Africans are discontented by the perceptions that have been framed by the outside world, internal actions are what defines the situation. Military dictatorship and coups have been a popular phenomenon in African politics. African leaders have also used poverty and low standard of living to garner the support of the outside world thereby providing an image that Africa is a land of poverty. Lack of strong leadership has pushed many African countries towards underdevelopment.  Furthermore, civil wars and internal conflicts are one of the enduring features in some of the post-independence African states. In the last 40 years, around 45 percent of the Sub-Saharan African countries have experienced at least one period of civil unrest. Unfortunately, countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo and Somalia are still beset by such conflicts. Economic and democratic failure are the root causes of Africa’s problems rather than ethnolinguistic differences. The political instability has adversely impacted the economic activities of the external players. Despite being rich in resources many African countries still continue to operate in isolation. The external players owning to internal conflicts have been refraining themselves from engaging with such countries. A classic example of this is India, though there is a considerable amount of diaspora in the Democratic Republic of Congo and it being rich in resources, the bilateral engagement between the two countries is relatively poor. On the other hand, China has been taking the utmost advantage of the political condition existing in many African countries and has emerged as one of the top economic players in the African continent.

African Perspective

Along with the negative perception, the transformation of the African continent is said to have helped the continent counter the challenges. Despite the darkness, there is much that is positive  In the last decade, many of the African countries have proved that they are no longer suppressed and have the ability to rise as strong players in the international system. Countries irrespective of their size are growing at a faster rate mainly Rwanda, Ethiopia, Senegal and Ghana have shown impressive records. In January 2020, six of the performing economies in the world, from a low base, were African. This trend is believed to be likely repeated in the coming years however the outbreak of the pandemic and climate change is said to have an adverse impact on the economy.

To add to the economic gains, there have been big health gains. The continent has faced some of the greater health emergencies. Africa has 23 million people suffering from HIV/AIDS comprising 69 percent of the total population. Every year thousands of people lose their lives due to malaria and HIV. However, the African continent with its past experience in countering various viruses has been in a better position to tackle the current health emergency. Although the public health in Africa is still considered poor, the measures taken by African states in dealing with the pandemic has put them in a better position as compared to the Asians, Europeans and Americans. Africans have also been applauded for taking timely measures.

Keeping internal conflicts and terrorism threats aside, political coups have become rare. Africa is not a continent of violent repute. African elections are often said to be rigged but 45 leaders have been voted into office. There has been a considerable change in the political system of Africa. Many countries have adopted democracy and are moving away from single-party system and dictatorial regime. The political leadership is also changing as many leaders are under scrutiny. The new generation leaders are actively engaging with the rest of the world and are collaborating for making the African continent dynamic and in par with the rest of the players in the world system. Significantly, 30th May 2019 was considered as a historical event in African history as many African countries came together to establish the African Continental Free trade Area (AfCFTA). Though in its nascent stage, the formation of a single market would help to establish the economies of scale and connect Africa with the rest of the world.

Nairobi Market, Kenya/ Image source: Euractiv

Way Forward

 The African continent has been making efforts to prove that it is no longer trapped in the chains of colonialism. Africa has got its macroeconomics management on point but the highly envisioned heights solely depend on how they maintain the growth levels. It is necessary to ensure that the glimmers of hope do not fade in the coming time. For this, certain key areas should be focused. Improved standard of a living, balanced economy and quality public health is required for the continent to flourish. There may be internal challenges, the leaders should focus on countering the challenges rather than highlighting the challenges and creating a negative image of Africa. Increased efforts need to be put towards educating the masses and providing quality of life. The current pandemic has made the society vulnerable to internal threats but efforts should be made that the population especially the youth do not fall prey to the activities of the non-state actors. Likewise, the African countries need to engage more with the non-traditional players as having allies is a pre-requisite in international politics. Leadership continues to be a key component and it is necessary that they prioritise development.

Nevertheless, Africa for a long time has been viewed from a western perspective but it is necessary that the continent be looked from a different prism. The continent should no longer be seen as a dark continent rather as a continent booming with opportunities. Thus it will be interesting to see how the African states come together to change the perspectives build over time and will they succeed in doing so.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Kootneeti Team

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Meghna Muralidharan

Meghna Muralidharan is a Former Research Intern at The Kootneeti Africa Desk

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