The biggest problem is, that the words we use to describe African countries are stereotypical. They make you vulnerable to buy into poverty porn, and it prevents the people living in Africa to be seen as active equal subjects living in the same time period as you. They do not live in a parallel universe dancing half naked around a fireplace in the middle of a jungle.
Let’s take first things first, why are African countries not third world countries? Because this is not the Cold War. Tiers-Mondism or Third-Worldism divided the world into three realms:
1. First world – allies to the USA
2. Second world – allies to the USSR/Soviet bloc
3. Third world – countries refusing to side with either the USA or the USSR
Other interpretations argue that
1. First World – supported Capitalism
2. Second World – supported Communism
3. Third World – neither -> a third path
In some maps, we find countries such as Sweden, Bolivia, and DR. Congo all found to be third world countries. That is correct if we look at this what bloc different countries paid allegiance to. But then this term cannot be used to describe a country’s level of development or the type of government. It is only a matter what superpower you support. Or what economic system you prefer.
Today, regardless what interpretation you hold true, not a single African country qualifies to be a third world country. The USA won the Cold War and the USSR crumbled and in the end ceased to exist. That alone makes this worldview obsolete. Furthermore, Capitalism succeeded whether one agrees with the system or not. There is not a single real rival to Capitalism any longer, meaning all countries adhere to a kind of Capitalism, making all states first world countries.
Why can we not refer to African states as developing countries? The short answer is because they are not. A more elaborate answer begins at President Truman’s speech in 1949:
We must embark [President Truman] on a bold new program for making the benefits of our scientific advances and industrial progress available for the improvement of underdeveloped areas. The old imperialism – exploitation for foreign profit – has no place in our plans. What we envisage is a program of development based on the concepts of democratic fair dealing (Esteva 1992:7)
Suddenly, overnight, the world was divided into two, the developed world and the underdeveloped world that had to be developed.
For this dichotomous view of the world to succeed, the ones inhabited the now underdeveloped world had to see themselves as underdeveloped. Today, we can say that this mission is accomplished. This move was not a difficult one to achieve since Western countries had spent decades portraying themselves as representing the ultimate last ladder of the evolutionary stage. This division of the world into a developed and underdeveloped one was no different. The developed world represented the Western world. The underdeveloped countries should develop, and over time the countries would climb the ladder and finally reach the same evolutionary ladder as that of the developed countries. Even there was a difference between the idea Africans were racially inferior and this worldview. The new one initiated by Truman, the rhetoric focused on the materialistic development. At least rhetorically. But Africans were still hapless victims needing help from the Western world to evolve. And the Western world was the final step.
Just for fun, they to replace “underdeveloped” with “primitive”, and “developed” with “civilised”.
For the developed world whom do you look at if you represent the ultimate ladder? I do not have an answer, besides you risk to end up suffering from narcissism. This division lacked self-reflection and it was a continuation of the past ideology found in the White Man’s Burden that gave birth to the White Messiah Syndrome. Africans need the white man to save them, where the white man turns himself into a white messiah seeing the people he shall save as passive props for his own development project rather than active subjects.
The separation of the world into these two realms is deterministic, linear, and plain wrong, since that is not how the world has ever worked. And you end up seeing the developing world as monolithic and the people as a group rather than made up of individuals. That is a reason why so many people remain referring to Africa as a country rather than a continent.
The Danger in Seeing African Countries as Underdeveloped
When you hear a country is underdeveloped, you likely begin to imagine a place that is yet to reach modernity. You might even begin to imagine a scenery from an old movie. A hut, some naked dark skinned people, none is fully clothed, and they do not know what a cell phone is. A place stuck in a different time period.
This fake image gives birth to so-called poverty porn. People exploiting your distorted image of Africa to make a profit out of other people’s misery. Such as the “buy one – give one” scheme. An example of such scheme was the shoe company named TOMS shoes ran by Blake Mycoskie (Adam Ruins Everything 2015). When you bought his shoes, he would donate a pair of shoes to Africa. Since you know, Africans don’t have shoes, and they are all poor. Let’s start at the wrong doing of his business model. He made this scheme sound as it was a humanitarian, almost non-profit enterprise. But his shoes cost $60 to buy, but just $4 to make. So when you bought a pair of shoes for $60 and he donated one pair to Africa, he earned $52. That is false advertisement.
What is even worse is that African countries, all of them, do have shoemakers, shoe stores and shoe repairers. When an American begins to offer people free shoes, you destroy local business. That is a huge problem, since the vast majority of African countries do not lack shoes or clothes, but jobs.
Why did people buy TOMS shoes? Because of the distorted image created by what words we use to describe African countries.
There is also the images of starving children we see floating around the web constantly. Yes, we have people starving in Africa. Yes, we have children starving and dying of starvation in Africa. But most children do not starve. Actually, several African countries report a growing number of children suffer from obesity. In a more elaborate report from Afrobarometer released in 2013, averagely 17 percent of the surveyed people from 34 African countries said, they had gone to bed hungry often the past year (Afrobarometer 2013). When Afrobarometer asked the people surveyed from 32 countries, what the most important problems were, the answer “food” came in as number 7. The main three problems were and persist to be 1) unemployment (37 percent), health (31 percent) and education (23 percent) (Afrobarometer 2015).
But somehow, we still see stars visiting starving children, ads on TV making you donate food to starving Africans. That is the stereotype. It would be better if you begin to buy a product from an African producer. The business owner can then expand their business that would actually help to solve the biggest problem in Africa, unemployment. Sending food is not bad in the case of an emergency, but it should be the exception, not the rule. TOMS Shoes used the distorted image of Africa as a backward place to make a profit for himself.
Pictures of starving children are likely poverty porn affirming the false image of the living conditions of people living in Africa. And sending food risks undermining local food producers.
Seeing African countries as developing makes it easier for fraudsters to paint a picture of Africa as a place with people living in huts, naked while playing drums around a fireplace. Adichie 2009:
“[T]he problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”
Poverty porn makes it easy for people to cheat you since they speak to your stereotypes and your good nature wanting to help people. Buy this and things will be good.
It also tends to lock a person as a stereotype. E.g. most pictures of Africans are about Africans living in a village symbolising primitivism. Then a white messiah appears and hope emerges. The reality is that a majority of all Africans live in cities.
It also prevents proper companies to thrive. Locally, the genuine companies cannot compete with someone giving people free stuff. On a global level, it prevents foreign companies to see Africans as capable being and as equal partners. Basically, poverty porn and negative stereotypical images of Africa prevents the outside world from seeing Africans not as passive aid recipients but as active consumers. Like every place else.
What makes a country underdeveloped?
Is a country modern, when the people in said country have access to cell phones? Electricity? Computers? Cars? Access to the internet? Hospitals? Medicin? Books?
If yes, then African countries are as modern as the rest of the world.
If we take access to electricity, then no matter what African country you choose to visit, you will find access to electricity. Afrobarometer released a report in the beginning of 2016, where they reported that all 35 surveyed African countries have electricity. The difference was how many people had access to the grid. In Burundi, just 17 percent had access to the grid, while in a country like Zimbabwe the number was 61 percent, and in Cameroon, the number was 97 percent (Afrobarometer 2016).
Do people in Africa have cell phones? Africa has witnessed an unparalleled rise of people having at least one cell phone. PEW reported, that having a cell phone in Nigeria was as common as in the USA. The difference was the brand of the phone and how smart the phone was (PEW 2015).
According to ZD-net, in 2011, there were about 650 million phone users on the African continent (ZDnet 2012). That number has gone up since.
How about the internet? While it is true, few Africans have access to the internet from their private homes, internet cafes are common. As the access to smarter and cheaper phones is rising, a growing number of people having access to the internet through their cell phones. Today, you can visit a small village in e.g. Ghana. Imagine a little hut. The sun is hot. In the distant is the National Park. The road is still unpaved. Suddenly you pass by a person having a cell phone listening to Justin Bieber on Youtube. That is the reality.
Or how Africans begin to pay for rent, electricity and other commodities through their virtual wallets, also known as mobile money. We all know of M-Pesa, the most popular mobile money service launched in Kenya in 2007. Ghanaians got the same opportunity in 2009. In comparison, Denmark’s largest Bank, Danske Bank, launched the first Danish mobile money service in 2013. Kenya and Ghana reached the future several years before Denmark did. Today, big telecom companies offer similar mobile money services across Africa such as MTN, Glo, and Airtel. Suddenly, you can receive or send money regardless where you are located on this planet.
When it comes to the movie industry, Nigeria has the second largest movie industry in the entire world, only second to India’s Bollywood. Hollywood is the third largest.
I can also mention how the Kenyan author Wainaina in his book “One Day I Will Write About This Place” narrates how he loved to listen to Michael Jackson when he grew up (Wainaina 2012:83).
Personally, I have sat in a bus in Ghana listening to “Babie Girl” by Aqua, and when I visited the Mall, families were busy buying merchandise featuring characters from the Disney cartoon movie “Frozen” to their children, who also sang “Let It Go”.
I could go through how Africans have books, solid science producing institutions, modern roads, skyscrapers, casinos, and how you can find burgers, pizza, smart-phones, Coke Cola, and everything else you even remotely associate with a modern country and society. But I think you got the idea, that Africa is not a backward place like the “underdeveloped” or “developing” country terminology falsely makes people believe. They are not lacking behind.
Africa – It Is About Access
Since Africans live in the same world as everybody else. They can listen to Bieber, browse the internet, send emails and money, drink Coke Cola, wear normal clothes, and children have to wake up early for school to catch the bus. So what is the deal with Africa?
There is a difference, and it is really not an exotic one, and it is not an African problem, but best observable in the majority of African countries. Inequality. The gap between the ones having access and the ones not having access to the abovementioned commodities is wide. This problem can be found everywhere, however, it appears to be the most extreme in Africa. The reasons are many and nuanced. One of the more important factors is mentioned by the Ugandan scholar Mamdani.
“[T]he anticolonial struggle was first and foremost a struggle against the hierarchy of the local state, the tribally organised Native Authority, which enforced the colonial order as customary.” (Mamdani 1996:24)
The implication was, that the anti-colonial struggle was more a revolt against a common enemy than a will to fundamentally change the political systems created during colonialism. When African countries gained independence through a fierce fight, the elite took power and began to act like the colonizers. The subjects remained subjects rather than citizens. The bifurcated state was deracialised, but never detribalised. As African states became decolonized, they did not become democratised.
The French historian Prunier argues (2015), this led to gangsters rather than legitimate leaders in numerous African countries among other places. An elite, who inherited the brutality the former colonial powers used to oppress the people in the colonies. Since the state apparatus was never democratised, the police remained bodyguards for the political elite, and the elite felt no or little belonging to the common man. The goal was to get power, maintain power, and to treat the state coffers as your own personal bank account. The Nigerian historian Professor Falola argues:
“In cases where high-ranking military or civil employees were purged for corrupt practices, they were immediately replaced by people who could easily advantage of the same corrupt system that had illegally enriched their predecessors.” (Falola and Heaton 2008:189)
Even he also analyses Nigeria, the same pattern is visible throughout the continent. Leaders and their clientele enrich themselves at the expense of the people. When one leader is replaced voluntarily or forcefully, the structures remain. Even if a person is replaced due to corruption, little is done to improve the system to prevent future mismanagement.
The negative impact of clientelism was made worse by the Cold War, where African leaders received aid from the USA or the USSR as long as they aired support for one or the other. No questions asked.
The focus on personal enrichment for yourself and your friends also meant that focus was on raw material which provided a quick fix, rather than widespread industrialisation to process materials where you do not see an income until in a more distant future. By then you might have been coup d’etat by another person also wanting to plunder the state for what it is worth.
Since the Cold War ended, things have improved significantly, but too many African countries still rely on raw materials such as oil, rice, coffee and cocoa beans, flowers, fruits, groundnuts, gold, and valuable minerals. The negative implication is that wealth remains in control by a tiny elite, and the economy remains fragile. That reduces the accessibility for the majority of the people, and the unemployment rate remains high. To extract raw materials require little manpower, and the few good jobs are controlled by the elite.
Credit Suisse Group AG estimates, that out of the one billion people living on the African continent, the middle class consists of just below 19 million people (Business Insider 2015). However, the African Development Bank estimates the African middle class consists of 300 – 500 million (AfDB). However, 60 percent of this middle class is said to earn $2 – $4 per day, which means the people have barely escaped poverty. To call this group of people “middle class” renders this term empty. Economist Morten Jerven has also put into question how trustworthy the data we use regarding Africa is. Jerven criticises the statistics for been of such poor quality, that they often are beyond useless (Jerven 2013).
Hopefully, the new generations of Africans, the leaders of tomorrow, will begin to focus on redistribution of wealth to decrease the gap between those having access to resources and those who have not. The youth have grown up in a different world than the former generations. They have not experienced colonialism, they see the future as bright, and they know what they want.
The problem we see across Africa is not people living in a different time period. Not people, not knowing whom Obama or Bieber is, or not knowing the taste of Coke Cola or Pizza, or not knowing how a smartphone looks like. They do not live in the jungle.
It is about poverty and lack of equal access to the same commodities.
If you want to support Africa, it would be better to support local business, to co-operate with local partners, to share new technology, and/or to open a book by an African author.
As Africans say themselves, it is not charity that they need the most. They yearn for jobs and better hospitals and education. Not shoes, your second-hand bras, or a fallen Western star trying to reignite his or her stardom by singing a lullaby to a hungry, black, African child.
PS: Africans know about musicians like Queens, Bieber, Michael Jackson, Lady Gaga, and Jay Z. They know about authors, scientists, philosophers as Shakespeare, Plato, Einstein, and Kant.
The question is, do you know any African musician, scientist, philosopher or author? At times, the real question does not seem to be, if Africans are the ones in need to be enlightened, but it is people living in the Western world who need to be educated about how the world looks outside our small bubble.
So how about giving your friends a book by an African author as a present?
Adam Ruins Everything, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hX0g66MWbrk
Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi, 2009, The Danger of the Single Story – TED talks https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D9Ihs241zeg
AfDB, 2011, http://www.afdb.org/fileadmin/uploads/afdb/Documents/Publications/The%20Middle%20of%20the%20Pyramid_The%20Middle%20of%20the%20Pyramid.pdf
Afrobarometer, 2013, http://afrobarometer.org/sites/default/files/publications/Briefing%20paper/ab_r5_policypaperno1.pdf
Afrobarometer, 2015, http://afrobarometer.org/sites/default/files/press-release/round-6-releases/ab_r6_pr1_african_priorities_ENG1.pdf
Esteva, Gustavo, 1992, ‘Development’, in Wolfgang Sachs (ed), The Development Dictionary. A Guide to Knowledge as Power, London and New Jersey, Zed Books
Falola, Toyin; Heaton, Matthew M., 2008 , A History of Nigeria, Cambridge University Press
Jerven, Morten, 2013, Poor Numbers
Mamdani, Mahmood, 1996, Citizen and Subject – Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism, Princeton University Press
Prunier, Girard, 2015, private notes
Wainaina, Binyavanga, 2011 , One Day Will Write About This Place – A memoir, Granta Press