Watch out for the Lion Cubs: An Unexpected Triumph in Africa

By Conze, Albrecht | Harvard International Review, Spring 2013 | Go to article overview

Watch out for the Lion Cubs: An Unexpected Triumph in Africa


Conze, Albrecht, Harvard International Review


It is no longer a secret--Africa is finally on the rise. For many decades, we have been used to associating the continent with the Six D's of horror: decay, disaster, drought, disease, despotism, and despair. They have not disappeared over night, but they are now being complemented by the Three E's: emergence, evolution, and emancipation.

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Robust growth rates were hardly disturbed by the global crisis of 2008; armed conflict has declined; the middle class is growing; elections are improving and becoming more frequent; regional political integration is increasing; more girls are attending school; malaria and HIV/AIDS are being treated more effectively; and the old dinosaurs who used to fill their coffers while ruining their countries are beginning to disappear--could the worst finally be over for Africa? Will it follow most other regions of the southern hemisphere, and eventually emerge from poverty?

The continent is not there yet, but we can see some interesting new trends. Africans have started to find answers to their burning questions. Consequently, some deeply rooted perceptions may need adjustment: both the West and Africa's Asian partners will at last have to accept Africa as an equal partner. This will require new thinking in a number of capitals, but old attitudes die hard.

Africans are raising their voices in the global concert without obsolete liberation ideology, underdog rhetoric, or cries for more help. Instead, they are stating Africa's case persuasively, arguing at an Ivy League level, looking China in the eye, and reminding the rest of us that theirs is not an earth apart, but part of our One World. They come from all walks of life into Africa's emerging middle class. They should be listened to by all the global social engineers who still think that poverty can be reduced from outside, that Africa needs help and pity, and that foreigners should do all the thinking. Many of us haven't realized yet how fast foreign aid is losing its importance as a major factor in Africa's development.

Why Africa Failed Previously

Since the beginning of decolonization, sub-Saharan Africa has tried at least twice to find its way out of the doldrums--first, right after the independence of tropical Africa, around 1960; and again following the end of the Cold War when a number of "Big Men" were successfully challenged by democratic movements.

Both times, hope was crushed--in the 1970s when military regimes took over, suffocating political emancipation and giving way to mismanagement and corruption, and in the 1990s, when the number of wars in Africa reached its post-independence peak, and foreign debt was at its highest. Between 1989 and 2004, UN peacekeeping missions had to intervene in 15 African countries. Commodity prices were down, and foreign debt was not yet forgiven. While Asia's small tigers first, and China later, stunned the world with impressive progress, Africa appeared to be trailing behind hopelessly. Optimists about Africa had a hard time.

Africa's twice repeated failure to emerge confirmed its international reputation as a basket case. Seemingly unable to manage its affairs, it constantly required international intervention, which came in different shapes. While the United States and many European countries increased their aid, conceived the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and wrote off most of Africa's foreign debt, China began to develop infrastructure and take out unprocessed commodities. Western countries with strong Protestant traditions continued to see Africa through the distorting lens of their bad conscience, stemming from the distant past of colonialism and the slave trade. Africa's leaders did subscribe to the MDGs, but had they really participated in conceiving them? As late as 2004, the Brookings Institute published a study, "Ending Africa's Poverty Trap," which drew a grand picture of everything that needed to be done in and for Africa. …

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