05 Aug 2014

It's Time to Change the Way We Think About Africa

More than 40 African leaders have gathered in Washington, D.C., this week on a mission to change conventional wisdom about a continent with big problems and even bigger potential. It is not an easy task, but it is long overdue.

Far too many people dismiss Africa as a hopeless case of dysfunction, trapped in an endless drama of war, disease, and poverty. For decades, aid donors have provided billions of dollars in response to a chorus of appeals from African countries beset with humanitarian crises ranging from droughts, to floods, to widespread civil conflict.

A recent cascade of crises has not added to the confidence of donors -- religious violence and starvation in the Central African Republic, the mass abduction of girls in Nigeria, an outbreak of Ebola in West Africa, anda flood of refugees from war-torn South Sudan into neighboring Ethiopia. Periodic revelations of corruption by African politicians and stolen or squandered aid add to the skepticism about the continent's future. Can Africa ever overcome its problems?

Yes. In fact, it is doing just that, with help from the international community.

A few months ago I visited UNICEF and World Food Program projects in Liberia, a country decimated by 14 years of civil war and still heavily dependent on a UN peacekeeping mission costing nearly half a billion dollars a year. On the surface, the situation looks bleak, even by African standards. Much of the educated class fled during the civil war, and outside investors are wary.

The country, roughly the size of Tennessee, has inadequate roads that stifle trade, an extreme shortage of hotels, and just one licensed physician for every 100,000 people. The basic economic and social statistics are depressing, and they reflect the reality I encountered in dusty villages devoid of electricity or running water.

But there are also signs of change.

At a women's farm project in Bomi County, in northwestern Liberia, I was greeted by a group of local school children. I expected perhaps a song and smiles, but a shy boy who could hardly have been 5 years old was pushed forward to read a statement.

Without any stumbling or hesitation, he delivered a rather long speech in absolutely flawless English. I was stunned. His English was, in fact, better and clearer than any of the local officials we met, which is perhaps why they chose him to speak. He represents the future of a country that has suffered from a massive exodus of talented and educated people.

Helping children like this boy reach their potential has been the central goal of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa's first female head of state. A brilliant economist and former World Bank official, she exudes intelligence and is keenly aware of all that needs to be done to bring Liberia back from the brink. She cancelled her trip to Washington to deal with the Ebola outbreak in her country.

Despite a lack of resources -- human and financial -- the progress in Liberia has been striking. Sirleaf's campaign, "A Promised Renewed," has cut infant and under-five mortality rates by nearly 70 percent from 1990 levels, the best record in Africa. She recognizes that you cannot tap the energy and creativity in rural communities if half the children are stunted and malnourished. Much of the progress has been made by community health volunteers, mostly women.

While it is the fashion these days to emphasis the role of women in development, the simple fact is that in Africa they really are critical, especially in ending the chronic hunger that still stalks the continent. Eight out of 10 of Africa's farmers are women, and they have become the focus of organizations, like the Gates Foundation, seeking to new approaches in developing agriculture.

Many tend to think of aid to Africa as charity, but in the agricultural sector there is huge potential. Africa has 60 percent of the world's arable land. If we are to double food output in the coming decades to meet population growth, that land must be made more productive than it is today or we will all suffer.

There are signs of growth in African agriculture. Oddly enough, cell phone technology may have done as much to help African farmers as a decade of conventional aid. Cell phones are being used to communicate with farmers in Liberia and other nations to cope with plant and animal diseases and help market food at better prices.

Liberia shows there can be progress against incredible odds, and it is not the only example of an African country that is moving toward a brighter future. Africa has become the second fastest growing region in the world economically. Liberia has managed a brisk 8 percent growth a year under President Sirleaf.

Fifteen out of 20 countries making the most progress on the UN's Millennium Development Goals to alleviate poverty, hunger and other social ills are, in fact, African, including Benin, Ethiopia, Mali, Rwanda, Gambia.

Even the criticisms of African corruption need to be put in perspective. Yes, we need to fight hard to ensure aid money is not diverted and to curb the corruption that plagues African economies, but there has been progress. Many who dwell solely on these issues are just looking for an excuse not to help. There is no excuse.

There is no question that Africa faces many serious issues on the road to development. But a new reality is emerging. It is time for perceptions to change as well.