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DEVELOPMENT: Africa’s Time Has Come

Sanjay Suri

MADRID, Nov 25 2010 (IPS) - There is the image of Africa, worse than Africa is, and then there is Africa, so much of it better than its image. It’s the continent whose time has come, African civil society leaders emphasised at a meeting in Madrid Thursday.

Primary school children in class, in Harar, Ethiopia. Credit: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

Primary school children in class, in Harar, Ethiopia. Credit: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

The overriding image of an Africa ridden by poverty, disease and deprivation of every kind reveals an undoubted truth, it was acknowledged, but hides the reality of an Africa growing at more than five percent on average, raising resources without aid, and prospering. The hidden one is an image of a truth little known and less acknowledged.

Malawi has become a maize donor now to countries in need, and sells its surplus on world markets, Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane, president of African Monitor, an NGO based in Cape Town said in his keynote address at the meeting organised jointly by the Agencia Española de Cooperación Internacional para el Desarrollo (AECID), the Spanish agency for international development, and Inter Press Service (IPS).

“This success came after the Malawian government ignored recommendations by some funding agencies not to subsidise fertiliser and other farming inputs,” Ndungane added.

This is one success among many. The very stories of failure are becoming stories of success, Ndungane said. Africa still has the lowest life expectancies and the most extensive poverty, but “the good news is that we are reversing many of these trends – and that is why we dare to claim that Africa’s time has come.”

Ndungane pointed to several positives. The extreme poverty rate peaked in the late 1990s at more than 58 percent, but by 2005 it had dropped to less than 50 percent. Sub-Saharan Africa is bucking global trends to push growth from 5.3 percent this year to 6.0 percent in 2011.

Within the next year the African Development Bank will finance $10 billion in infrastructure projects, though the World Bank says Africa needs $93 billion a year on roads, water and power. Where it gets $40 billion a year in aid, it is raising $400 billion through bonds, remittances and other financial mechanisms.

This is the best, but not all. Back then to that overriding image, and to the facts that sustain it. And Ndungane more than acknowledges these.

Corruption could be the biggest. “In 2008 illicit outflows from sub-Saharan Africa amounted to $96 billion,” he said. “It is scandalous.”

On the one hand African nations have committed to spending 10 percent of their budget on agriculture, but only 10 are meeting that commitment. It hasn’t helped that donors have delivered only 60 percent of their pledges.

But there is near agreement that the balance is shifting – and that media are falling far short of reporting this new balancing. “There needs to be a paradigm shift in media because the progress in Africa is not being reported,” Themba James Maseko, CEO of the Government Communication and Information System (GCIS) in South Africa, said at the meeting to a packed house.

Many European countries have few migrants from Africa, and the only image children growing up in these countries have is of a poor conflict and poverty-ridden continent, he said. On the other hand Africa needs to do its bit: to build leadership, build industries rather than exporting raw material, check brain drain, ensure environmental sustainability, and fight corruption.

Inevitably, a meeting on Africa in Spain threw up the question of undocumented African migrants arriving in Europe.

“Through history there has always been migration,” said Cheriff Sy, chairperson of the African Editors Forum. “People have always migrated for a happier life. And there is migration within Africa too.”

And, he added, “Let’s not talk of these people as if they are cattle.”

Rather than rely on the media, it might help to bypass it, suggested Javier Bauluz, photojournalist and Pulitzer Prize winner. People don’t know about each other, he said, and rather than rely on the media, they should go for exchange programmes. Such moves at the school level between Africa and Europe can lead to more understanding, he said.

Getting such ideas across was the goal of the meeting, IPS Director-General Mario Lubetkin said in his closing remarks. It was “to listen to the new African reality, one that can be heard in a new way, with dignity, without fear, without fear even to be wrong or to make mistakes.”

It is now, he said, “an emerging Africa in an emerging South, that is not just in the future, but present, and in which Africa is joining the dynamism of China, India and Brazil.”

The capacity of Africa, and of South Africa, he said, had been demonstrated in the football World Cup. “Many had said it would be a failure, but life proved to be different. Media, focused on football, failed to bring out the dimensions of what South Africa and Africa accomplished in organising the championship. It was a watershed.”

Picking up on the expression “Afro-pessimism” at the meeting, Lubetkin said that media sometimes helps to deepen this “Afro-pessimism”. The meeting, he said, had opened minds to a new “Afro-optimism”, not as a public relations exercise, but as a perspective to understand Africa.

A new IPS Africa website was launched at the meeting.

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