The U.S.-Africa Summit was Important, but America Still Needs to Get Rid of Some Stereotypes About Africa

President Obama at the U.S.-Africa Summit (Larry Downing/Reuters)
President Obama at the U.S.-Africa Summit (Larry Downing/Reuters)

by John Prendergast

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…
It was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.

Those words penned by Charles Dickens about the period leading up to the French Revolution seem quite applicable to Africa today on the heels of the first-ever U.S.-Africa Summit. The Summit rightly focused primarily on the “spring of hope” being experienced by many in Africa’s burgeoning middle and upper classes, fueled by impressive economic growth data and lucrative trade and investment opportunities in a continent which hosts six of the ten fastest growing economies in the world. But life remains truly a “winter of despair” for the millions of hungry, impoverished, displaced, and conflict-affected people who don’t fit easily into the “Africa Rising” narrative being burnished around Washington this week.

The Summit had many objectives: increasing trade and investment between the U.S. and Africa; delivering messages about the critical need for better governance; showing strong support for African civil society’s contribution to state-building; the list could go on and on. And there was important progress made on a number of these goals. But underlying all this was a more general and ambitious aspiration: to change the narrative about Africa from that of a basket case to a land of opportunity.

Americans’ perceptions of Africa remain rooted in troubling stereotypes of helplessness and perpetual crisis. Therefore, the Summit’s focus on positive trends on the continent is crucial to beginning to re-calibrate the story of Africa to one more balanced between progress and setbacks. But addressing that “winter of despair” should not reinforce the inaccurate perceptions.

There are three ways to counter the negative stereotypes when dealing with African crises that avoid the “heart of darkness” trap of hopelessness that so many commentators fall into. First, it is critical to acknowledge the centrality of Africa’s leadership in crisis response. The view remains prevalent that Africans need to be saved from themselves. But in most emergencies, anyone taking a closer look would find that misconception countered by the reality of African leadership. Africans are on the front lines of humanitarian efforts, distributing life-saving aid in dangerous environments. Africans comprise the vast majority of peacekeepers in civil conflict on that continent. Africans for the most part lead peace negotiations for the wars being fought in Africa. Africans are the park rangers protecting the elephants and other wildlife from violent criminal poaching networks. And Africans are the health care workers caring for those stricken with epidemic diseases like the Ebola crisis threatening West Africa today.

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SOURCE: The Daily Beast

John Prendergast is the Founding Director of the Enough Project, which focuses on countering genocide and other human rights crimes.

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