John Wambugu/Africa Lead

World News


Africa News, Truth or Trope?

I spend part of my workday perusing African news on the net. It gives me a chance to keep up with what’s going on after thirty years of active entrepreneurship and environmental activism. Concurrently, of course, the news itself is under increased scrutiny as to how effective the traditional model really is. If you can’t deliver the truth on local issues can you manage communities ten thousand miles away on another continent?

The answer is actually yes, perhaps a categorical yes. Much of the news is telling strong stories describing accurately how things actually are. But at the same time, there is a more general set of preconceptions that lurk in the background which makes it difficult, or maybe impossible, for the general reader to come to a fair judgment.

I read a couple of articles recently that may help me make my point.

For instance, this article in Nipashe discusses how Tanzania, and indirectly most other African countries, should expand their agricultural capability in such a way as to link with export and growth. Agriculture is most African countries’ strongest economic card so this would be a logical next step and China is the partner best placed to support such an effort.

And in another part of Africa and from a completely different point of view the Air Force Times published, “Competing and winning in Africa, a vast theater of opportunity,” in which the U.S. Air force is directly supporting ideas for African development. The article points out Africa’s dramatic developmental potential and the fact that the United States’ global competitor, China, is trying to capitalize on this very evident opportunity.

So on the one hand China, the second most powerful country in the world, is portrayed as Africa’s savior as a result of their support of African agriculture despite the fact China’s agricultural support and market development is arguably counter to the interests of African small growers who control the vast majority of the land and who also form the greater part of the electorate. Small growers need systems that will allow them or encourage them to find ways to participate in more lucrative markets. Support of African agriculture and support of the integration of small growers into the economy are conveniently conflated.

On the other hand, the United States, the largest economy in the world, is apparently proposing that their military presence in various countries across Africa is an advantageous situation. The article uses the words “competing and winning” with China as the competitor. It would seem in this equation that the United States is saying that its ability to convince African counties of the need for American military support, and even on their ground presence, is not only a good thing but a “win” in a larger competition.

But let’s face it, neither of these situations are good things. Success in African agriculture is about incorporating small farmers, a billion of them, into the greater economy not about donor intervention. And similarly, African security is about stabilizing democracies and the particular, local, relationship between people and power, not about geopolitical hegemony.

So back to my original question. Truth or trope? It seems to me there is a lot of confusing stuff out there and stories and articles can be spun to drastically misrepresent reality as the two examples illustrate. They are a kind of naturally occurring propaganda. I believe it is getting harder but it’s still possible to discern the difference. The important thing is having some experience in the field upon which to base your view. Realizing how malleable our new situation is, makes it so much more important that those with the experience make sure they keep their voice.