The Africa Trap

14 Oct

Most of us like to generalize.  It helps us make sense of things when we are unsure about something or have limited exposure to it.  It guides our decision-making when we are making a cost-benefit analysis or even a simple gamble. It helps us construct our view of reality.  Unfortunately, when that generalization involves assumptions about large bodies of dynamic information we tend to fall in to a problem of applicability.   One such large body of information is Africa.  Yes, I just treated it as a lump.  It is surprising how often people make generalizations about Africa.  Africa is a continent.  There are many commonalities across the continent but only as much as there are with any other continent. There are certainly more differences; a rich diversity of people, landscapes, histories and experiences.  But to many people Africa is just a place of war, famines, jungles and wild animals.  In this discussion, I try to parse out how our assumptions about the entire continent of Africa, has led to major generalizations in our thought process.  Both media and academic institutions reinforce these generalizations by avoiding context and thus the assumptions are self-enforcing.  I call falling in to these generalizations about Africa the ‘Africa Trap’, based on the scalar trap described by Brown and Purcell (2005) in their study about the economics of Brazilian market expansion in the Amazon.

I believe that this generalization of an entire continent, whether conscious or subconscious, is one of the underlying drivers of the developed world’s interaction with Africa, namely that it is raw, undeveloped, backward, full of wars and famine and even savage and importantly that we need to fix that.  We have created a mystique about Africa, much as Edward Said’s Orientalism asserts that common perceptions of the Middle East were largely the creation of Western assumptions, inferences and generalizations about some Arab cultures. This profoundly impacts how many people invest, give aid, development, and formulate foreign policy decisions. It has become the lens through which the world makes judgments about an entire seventh of the world’s population. 

Watching the CBC this morning a report entitled “Famine in Africa” came on. It is certainly not an uncommon thing to see titles of media stories flash across our screens that paint a picture about a place that we have never been.  Perhaps even subconsciously, we imagine that that is just the way it is in Africa.  It drives me bonkers. One of the things I see as a painfully indicative of our common views on development, aid, conservation and investment in eastern Africa is the almost perpetual usage of the term “Africa” in contexts where it is not appropriate.

Here is the problem: when we start to apply that sort of thinking to situations that do require specific knowledge, we can make inferences, juxtapositions assumptions and statements that are not only wrong, they are damaging.  If someone was to say something like “In Africa, they don’t have a free-market economy” many people may take that as fact, because most of the audience may not have any experience with the realities. The fact is it is not only an absurd statement, but also an amazingly broad generalization. Would anyone mind if I said “Asians eat dogs.” I would imagine that many Muslims in Turkey would find the assertion that I think they eat dogs, slightly disconcerting.   More importantly, it informs opinions in those that may not know so that they subconsciously think of Africa as backward, non-progressive etc. and that furthermore, there is little positive going on over the entire continent. That is why the generalization is so dangerous. Herein lays the issue.

Community to Continental: The Art of Generalizations

A professor I was speaking with two day ago said to me “in Africa, the men don’t do any farming do they?”  I was shocked.  If I was to say “Africans do this… “ or  “In Africa, they believe…” I would not only be generalizing everyone from Mandela to Ghadafi, K’naan to Aidan Hartley, but I would probably be leading others to believe it is a true generalization.   This professor didn’t seem to have any problem with that.

In reading Political Ecology by Paul Robbins this past week he asserts that:

“If environmental degradation is often associated with the marginalization of the poor subsistence communities and working people, it might be logical to assume that conservation and preservation of environmental systems, resources, and landscapes is commensurate with community sustainability and the protection of livelihoods.  This has proven to be far from true, however, even and especially where such communities are deeply implicated in environmental management and ecosystem maintenance.  The case of Africa is superlative in this regard.” (Robbins, 2004, p 147).

The case of Africa?  What case is Robbins talking about here?  Robbins has taken an assertion about the way several communities manage their environmental resources and in one swoop applied that assertion to an entire continent. Not only does it form the readers’ opinion that a homogenous group of poor people all act the same way, but it also insists that all people in Africa all behave the same way.  This is the epitome of dangerous thinking and these generalizations hurt societies economically, socially and developmentally.   I believe should refrain from using broad sweeping language about Africa.

There are myriad other examples of this type of thinking in the academic world but which we don’t have time to go in to here.  But I found this one particularly pronounced:  Burke and colleagues made a similar assertion in 2009 with Warming Increases the Risk of Civil War in Africa recording the impacts of climate change in a very specific contexts but in title, applied to the entire continent.   All of Africa is at risk of civil war?  Really?    But who is going to question that, right?

Economic implications of negative media coverage

The generalizations we are exposed to in the media and the implicit acceptance of them, deeply impact the way people make choices of how to interact with Africa, particularly in sectors such as the service industry.   Would you want to travel to a place that is full of bandits, militia and famine?  Probably not.  But on any given day, according to many major international news outlets, the only thing going on in Africa is famine and war.  An example that I am familiar with comes from the economy of Kenya.  (I can’t comment on Nigeria, Zambia, Madagascar or Algeria because I simply would be making a generalization about stuff I really have no business commenting on).

Kenya’s economy is dependent on a robust tourism trade.  This tourism trade, like many other countries in the region, is built on the presence of enigmatic, charismatic mega-fauna whose very presence is an amazing success story in tolerance and management. By some estimates one in six Kenyans are involved in tourism directly and indirectly through service provision.  However, despite a well-educated population, innovative mobile banking services, technologically advanced communications, dynamic resource and conservation solutions, a bustling private sector and major reforms to the entire constitution recently, how often does one hear good news coming out of the media regarding Kenya? Do a Google search of stories about Kenya in the international media and the vast majority of the news stories reported are about crime, criminals, post-election violence and famine. A recent spate of abductions of foreigners in an area of eastern Kenya closest to troubled areas of Somalia has been a good example of how the media handles such generalizations about Africa and the economic ramifications of this type of generalization are clear.   This area is an area which has a troubled past, largely due to the lack of any form of effective governance in Somalia and the influx of weaponry from the Cold War.   But let’s be specific – this is not all of Kenya, nor is it even close to where the majority of tourism activities take place.  And yet, the framing of the media stories makes it sound as if Kenya is a dangerous place.

Does it impact people’s opinions about Kenya and their decision to visit?  I would venture to say it does even though the site of the crimes was over a thousand kilometers from where most tourism operations are conducted. How does this impact all of those people reliant on the robust tourism trade? The obvious answer is very negatively, undermining the development of an entire country.

Can we say that this fits our preconception of Africa?  In some ways it is not a hard conclusion to draw that all of Africa is the same as the border area of Somalia, even if that assertion is not accurate at all.

Let’s look at it another way. British Columbia in Canada also has a robust tourism economy with thousands of people coming every year to see the natural wonders of the wild and beautiful cities alike. In early September 2011, a young boy from Sparwood, BC was abducted. Should we all stay away from BC because something happened in Sparwood?  Should we all stay away from Canada because something happened in BC? If the Kenyan media reported this story in the same way that western media outlets report on Africa, I would stay out of Canada.  Ludicrous isn’t it?

The types of assertions that the international media make about Kenya impact the lives of all Kenyans.  The same assumptions about Africa, impact all of Africa and serves to inform a much broader, if under-educated world, that “Africa is a dangerous place”.  Parts of it are.  No argument there.  So are parts of the US, such as parts of Baltimore, Atlanta and if you are gay, Wyoming.  My point is that in a world that is more hyper-connected than ever, why are we not holding our media outlets to a standard that reflects actual news connected with actual specific places in temporal and spatial scales as opposed to assertions about an entire continent?  The failure to do that is not just unfortunate or poor journalism.  It actually deeply impacts the stability of many people’s livelihoods.

Foreign Aid, Development and the Africa Trap

Whether or not we want to believe that aid and development workers are somehow better at implementing programs that avoid the “Africa trap” or not, the inherent truth is that many projects and programs are fraught with design flaws that embody this type of thinking.  I won’t go in to many examples here as they are easy to find and it is often too easy to criticize aid without taking context in to consideration.  But one or two examples do come to mind.

The wide distribution of food and Non Food Items (NFIs) in many aid programs is an example.  We intrinsically think that Africans are poor and that to make them not poor we need to give them stuff.  Although theoretically targeted, many distributions have inadvertently destroyed local economies.  In Kenya, dumping free stuff , can very often destroy local market economies on which many livelihoods are dependent.  The Kenyan textile and garment industry can not compete with the influx of free, or incredibly cheaply priced clothes sent to mitumba markets by well meaning Americans who want to “help those poor Africans”.

I need to clarify that, sometimes, it absolutely appropriate to promote some of these measures of assistance.  Careful, contextual analysis needs to happen before anything else, and certainly not just because “it is Africa and they need help”.


So what am I saying here?  Africa is a continent.  Most other usages of the word Africa should be challenged for context and veracity.   Our assertion that generalizations can be made about such a massively diverse continent is weak and can bias us in profound ways. We need to challenge that thinking when we come across it because context matters, temporally and spatially. When someone talks to you about Africa, whether in a media story or just in a passing conversation, remind them that no one speaks African, so could they please be more specific.


Posted by on October 14, 2011 in Uncategorized


2 responses to “The Africa Trap

  1. Ryan

    October 15, 2011 at 14:48

    Africa has snow all year round (Kilimanjaro)….. the richest people in the world (Mugabe, Bashir, Mubarak)….. the lowest population density in the world (Sahara Dessert)…. and the most beautiful landscape in the world (Great Rift Valley).

    It’s all a matter of perspective.

    • bryanadkins

      October 17, 2011 at 09:12

      Absolutely Ryan – and so, as you have shown, we should make our comments about the continent specific to the places they are about and dispel our biases in the meantime. Thanks for reading!


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