What is Africa’s real image?

2011-02-19 10:59

Imagine you’re an image consultant and the continent of Africa asked for your advice.

What image should Africa ideally project? Broadly, two images of our continent were flashed at the recent Davos conference in Switzerland.

(You as consultant can select either, but they’re in conflict, so you have to pick one.)

One image is that Africa is down and out.

Its pictures are of a dehydrated baby, tent towns, and famine and civil war.

The effect sought is to elicit pity for Africa, and then donations of money to the victim.

However, clearly not a place to do business or to take your family on holiday.

The other image of Africa has pictures of a success story: economic growth higher than the West, lower debt, competent workers, the World Cup.

One feels little sympathy and does not think of donating anything, but you wonder if your business shouldn’t expand there and, anyway, nice place to go on holiday.

Both visions of Africa are valid and they are peddled by honest people.

But they confuse foreigners.

The one image tells a bad story (to get your alms) and the other image a good story (to get your business).

Which to believe?

It strikes me that we in Africa have to play image consultant and decide.

If foreign aid is more weighty, we should doubtlessly present ourselves as down and out.

If trade and tourism is our aim, we should look successful to draw investment and tourists.

But how do we Africans decide which is more important?
One way is to look at numbers.

All foreign aid in the world, thus all payments made from motives of pity between countries, is pitifully small. It represents less than 1% of international trade?– now between $12 trillion (about R87 trillion) and $14trillion yearly.

So all the pity in the world doesn’t amount to much financially.

Even if Africa gets all the foreign aid going around in the world, it’s a band aid here and a food parcel there, but economically it doesn’t shift the needle.

To climb out of poverty, Africa has to trade itself into some of those trillions of dollars of commerce. Like India and China, it has to present itself as a success story where foreigners and locals want to invest.

It has to draw tourists. It has to lift its head and gain self-confidence, and stand up for its rights on the international stage, as China and India are doing.

Aid stands in the way.

Foreigners in the West who raise aid for Africa spread an image of failure of our continent: the dehydrated baby, the tent town, civil war.

They mean well.

After all, they’re collecting money and one can understand that they need images to evoke pity among the wealthy.

But in the process these Westerners destroy the image of Africa as a success story, a place to do business, a holiday destination and a continent that can stage a World Cup without foreign help.

But aid destroys more than image.

Firstly, it stimulates corruption.

If a government is funded by the taxes of its own people, they hold it accountable for how that money is spent.

But if a minister gets a donation from French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who are the citizens to complain if he skims 10% off the top and gives the construction project to his cousin. After all, it’s not the citizens’ taxes.

He got the money from Sarkozy.

Secondly, receiving aid from the West means we can’t punch the West on the nose during trade negotiations.

They do all sorts of nasty things to Africa: subsidise their farmers so ours can’t compete, block some of our exports, deny our continent its full voice at international forums such as the International Monetary Fund or the Security Council of the United Nations.

We can’t fight back like China and India are doing so spectacularly because we have to be nice – we’re on our knees holding out a begging bowl.

(Try punching the other guy while you’re on your knees).

Thirdly, aid undermines our self-confidence.

The first and greatest characteristic of an entrepreneur is confidence in yourself.

In business, risks are high, competition fierce.

If you don’t believe fiercely in your own abilities, no one else will.

African entrepreneurs will lack that self-confidence for as long as they hear daily that they are failures who have to survive on handouts from the West.

So, dear image consultant, what do you recommend for Africa?

» Bekker took part in a panel discussion on the image of Africa at Davos in January.

He is chief executive of the Naspers group and writes in his personal capacity

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