The United States Should Not Make Generalizations About Africa

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This is my article from issue #3 of 2017 in Cupertino High School’s newspaper, The Prospector

To quote “The Daily Show” host Trevor Noah, “To a lot of Americans, Africa is just one giant village full of AIDS, huts and starving children.” Despite the fact that Africa occupies a fifth of the world’s landmass, the vast majority of Americans continue to create generalizations about it as a single perpetually impoverished nation which requires monetary assistance from developed, first-world countries. While some of these assertions are grounded in truth, others perpetuate societal problems that plague Africa today. By creating vast generalizations, we allow Africa to fall victim to a new era of economic colonialism, labelled “neocolonialism” by many.

Let us take a look at a key trait most Americans attribute to Africa as a whole: internal conflict. Africa is composed of 53 individual nations, each with their unique people and circumstances. Six civil wars are currently taking place in Africa, primarily in Central Africa. In these countries, corruption, hunger and poverty are more rampant than anywhere else on the continent, so these countries appear frequently in the news — western watchers would rather feel superior than to recognize the relative success of the less violent African nations. As a result, Western media fixates on these six nations and simply ignores the rest. They portray the despair, hopelessness and famine that these specific people face as embodiments of Africa entirely, causing the western world to sympathize and pity Africa as a whole. That sympathy is then converted to charity in the form of medicine for the sick, food for the poor and monetary contributions for public education and welfare.

Counterintuitively, however, foreign aid is highly detrimental to Africa’s economy. Temporary fiscal relief does not create real wealth for a nation; the wealth of a nation can only grow if citizens work hard and create wealth through industry and trade. This requires motivation and stable economic relations. Assistance from outsiders strips the economic incentive to innovate and thus prevents many African nations from succeeding. If a nation loses self-initiative, it will fall into the vicious cycle of requiring more and more foreign aid to support its civilians. Providing food and supplies to the impoverished helps them greatly in the short term, but it ultimately does not generate any wealth for them. In essence, any external economic aid that an African nation receives treats the symptoms of the problems rather than the problems themselves. And in placing bandages on the open wounds that are the poor economic structures of the least developed African nations, we deprive them of the opportunity to experience substantial reform.

Individual donations to African charities are a small percent of the problem. International economic institutions often act as tools for the first world to exploit the lesser developed areas of the world. For instance, the International Monetary Fund and World Bank provide loans to African countries. While this may seem as a great way to stimulate the economy, heavy interest rates make them impossible to repay for poor nations. The hegemonic powers that allow for such exploitation are mostly concerned with their bottom line and international image, two factors that do not rely on sustainable economic growth resulting from their loans.

So how can we solve Africa’s problems without foreign involvement? First, we need to fund innovation in Africa. As a country, we need to invest in their businesses and universities. Greedy investors seeking immense gains are essential to kickstarting the production of wealth in developing nations. Startups and research are critical to driving long-term innovation, providing stable jobs and wealth to those in need. Every successful nation is led by their entrepreneurs and scientists, individuals who strive to change the status quo for the better. Proper foreign investment would ensure the steady and rapid growth of these institutions and help to raise living standards for all those in the country. One such nation doing so is the United Kingdom. In 2014, the UK started a program called the Newton Fund in order to provide development in the science and business sectors of several developing African nations. If more people take the step towards funding Africa rather than providing short-term foreign aid, these generalizations that have plagued Africa may finally prove inaccurate.

To achieve this feat, we need to change our current perception of Africa to accommodate for its diversity and eliminate any generalizations that we have stretched to summarize the state of the entire continent. The media is too focused on the parts of Africa that would evoke emotions of sympathy and sadness in the general American: civil wars, political revolutions, viral diseases, villages that seem uncivilized in comparison to modern society and poverty all make for better television than the rather mundane economic successes that are common throughout the continent. As Americans, we cannot simply blame mainstream media for perpetuating these tropes about the African continent in the first place. The fact that Afro-pessimism is rarely discussed at all is a consequence of American media consumers not being aware of the misconceptions being directed toward them, and the root psychological causes of these generalizations. Americans enjoy feeling exceptional, and have historically considered themselves the greatest nation on the planet; in doing so, they have subconsciously attempted to subjugate the rest of the world’s population.

Although indirect, generalizations are a key cause for why many African countries are doing poorly economically. Pitying them and providing them with generous amounts of charity leaves them in a cycle where they become simply too reliant on insidious foreign aid. The only way to break free is to foster long term wealth through smart foreign investments in place of assistance.

Even from a non-economic standpoint, it is illogical to put all of Africa’s stories, places and people under one huge umbrella. Its geography is diverse, ranging from tropical rainforests to arid deserts. Africa is both linguistically and culturally diverse, possessing upwards of 2000 native languages and 3000 different ethnic groups. Generalizations are used as a tool to simplify a concept into a simple idea. This is not possible with Africa. Any generalization made toward Africa will never be completely correct, only serving to reify it as a source of Western superiority rather than a group of human societies deserving of our respect.

The header photo is of Wakanda, the fictional Afro-futuristic nation from the Black Panther universe.