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A New Look At 'The Bright Continent'


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. On this program, we try to keep up with events throughout Africa. We report on all kinds of things, including the telecom revolution, the rise of a new middle class, even the growing literary and fashion scenes - all happening, all real. But for many, images of poverty, famine, war and dysfunction still predominate and sadly, are also too often true. So which is the real Africa? And which image should inform how the rest of the world deals with Africa? Those are the kinds of questions Nigerian-American journalist Dayo Olopade set out to answer in her sweeping new work called "The Bright Continent: Breaking Rules and Making Change in Modern Africa." And Dayo Olopade is with us now. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

DAYO OLOPADE: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: So what's your big idea? What are you trying to accomplish with this book?

OLOPADE: Well, the book is trying to do two things. One is narrative correction, and the other is models and examples for the rest of the world to follow. Now I worked as a reporter in Washington. I covered development. I covered American policy. And I found the images, the narrative, to be so inconsistent with what I had experienced living in and working in and experiencing different parts of Africa for much of my life. And the big example - the thing that really pushed me and the thing that drove home this big idea was when I was covering the United Nations 10th anniversary summit for the Millennium Development Goals.

And the Millennium Development Goals were a very ambitious, you know, roadmap for improving human lives all over the world. And the United Nations, in preparation for the 10th anniversary, sponsored a poster competition, and the winning poster had at the very top of it the leaders of the G8. This was Angela Merkel. This was Barack Obama, Hu Jintao, at the time. And at the bottom, the bottom half of the photo was young limbs.

They were black African limbs without shoes, standing in the dust, waiting in line, and the tagline for this winning poster was Dear World leaders, We are still waiting. And this of course did not conform to anything that I had seen or experienced. As opposed to that particular narrative, I had seen folks selling things in traffic. My own parents and my own family members and extended family members making do in adverse circumstances, you know, working twice as hard and waiting for no one.

MARTIN: So the idea that people are sitting around waiting to be saved you find so completely wrong and ridiculous that you felt you wanted to correct that. But what else? I mean, you talked about that a lot. I mean, you said that these, quote, depressing top-level narratives that have held the region back, and you also point out a lot of data about the economic engine that Africa has become. Also, quoting from the book, Africa provides a higher rate of return on investment than any other developing region of the world, including the celebrated BRIC nations of Brazil, Russia, India and China, and seven of the 10 fastest-growing economies in the world are African. I might need to repeat that 'cause I'm not sure people would believe it. So do you feel that mainly Africa has a PR problem at this point?

OLOPADE: Certainly. I think people underestimate the extent to which these depressing narratives of famine, war and corruption, you know, keep hundreds of millions of people hostage, right? And I think that when you focus on leadership that's bad, when you focus on institutions that are patronizing, you miss all of the exciting activity that's happening across the continent. And I think a lot of that activity is commercial. A lot of that activity involves a private sector, and so much of that activity is informal. It's not even available to these official statisticians, you know, official ministers and diplomats and other formal interventions in the continent just miss all of this.

MARTIN: Well, you talk about kanju, and you describe it as the specific creativity born from African difficulty. Talk a little bit about why that matters.

OLOPADE: Well, I think, again, it allows people - it allows us all a vision of the silver linings involved and the things that many people pity about Africa. When you think about an electrical grid that doesn't work, when you think about schools that don't educate children well, when you think about health systems that are strained, it can be a little overwhelming, and it can be depressing. By contrast, when you imagine these as motivations, which they are, when you imagine these as invitations to solve problems and to create dynamic, efficient workarounds, the state of affairs begins to look like a catalytic environment that generates new ideas that can, in fact, be applied to the developed world as well.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about a new book "The Bright Continent: Breaking Rules and Making Change in Modern Africa." We're speaking with author Dayo Olopade. As I mentioned at the outset, this is a very sweeping book. It's a very ambitious book, and you take on lots of sectors. I mean, you talk about agriculture. You talk about manufacturing. You talk about the telecom industry. Could you just give one example of the kind of what you call depressing top-level narrative that you think has actually inhibited growth, whatever people's good intentions are, inhibited the kinds of ingrown solutions that are already rising up?

OLOPADE: Well, I think the expectation that people in Africa can't afford anything, that poverty means that there's no commercial activity on the continent. I think it's quite to the contrary. Finance - big banks tend not to lend to entrepreneurs or small businesses. We have had a microfinance revolution. Many people first learned about the tradition of lending very small amounts to poor people when Muhammad Yunus won his Nobel Prize in 2006. But in my opinion, microfinance is not sufficient to grow, to employ, to train and to build a middle class that Africa is starting to develop itself. At the same time, you have enormous, you know, macrofinance, let's call it, enormous multimillion dollar projects - dams, bridges, roads. Some are Chinese financed. Some are done by entities like the World Bank or other private equity firms.

But what we're missing is what I think will really drive African development in the future, which is those small businesses that, you know, produce jobs here in the U.S. as well. Small and medium-size enterprises with 10 employees, 20 employees, five employees, offer people a step up into a middle class stable existence with reliable income that supports many more people than it does in the United States. You know, one job can support seven folks in Africa. And so financial institutions who are worried about corruption, who are worried about expropriation, who are worried about the difficult business climate in Africa are starving, you know, a vital sector of the economy of, you know, the oxygen it needs to thrive and to support people making their own choices about their lives.

MARTIN: You know, I take your point. You say that there's a lot of just misunderstanding of what is really needed on the ground to build on the strengths that are already there. But what do you say to people who say you can't ignore the mis-governance and tribalism, which exists in other places as well? I mean, is it your argument that these things don't really exist or aren't really major factors or that they're factors in other places and people just ignore it?

OLOPADE: Despite the fact that since pre-colonial era and continuing into the present, many governments are seen as illegitimate or inauthentic - they don't reflect tribal boundaries, they don't reflect religious boundaries, they don't reflect life as lived - we emphasize them quite a bit. So my contention is that these governance issues should not be the sole focus of development practice. There is such an emphasis on states, votes, democracy, civil society, all of these things that don't meet the people where they are. So while I acknowledge that there are problems with corruption, and they are widespread - and I think most people in Africa would be the first to agree with you, yes, our governments are poor. They are inadequate to meet our needs. We distrust them. We expect little from them. But the story doesn't stop there.

That's what I'm trying to emphasize, is that these actually drive a lot of the solutions. I'll give you an example, which is private schooling. People, for the most part, are willing to invest in something like education because it's seen as a way to develop children, a way to ensure future prosperity. And even the very poor are willing to invest in private education. And so when we have this expectation that the government will do - that we want to reform public education, we want to work through the government to make sure that children are being educated, we are not only beating a dead horse on some level, we are also depriving these alternative solutions of the support that they might need to grow.

MARTIN: So what are you saying? You're saying that westerners who want to be helpful should, what, support these local institutions or step out entirely?

OLOPADE: I am not an aide evangelist by any stretch of the imagination. I do not think that foreign assistance is precise. I do not think that it is well-reasoned. I think it can have the crowding out effects that we discussed earlier. I think that it can be distortive in markets, and I think it also has the unintended consequence of making people pity Africa. So the entire aid economy has a lot of negative effects.

That said, I think treating aid capital as capital - think about deploying it in different ways, to think about investing it, to think about something called program-related investments, which allow non-profits to invest in businesses, to see a return - to treat aid capital more like capital allows for more decentralization. It allows for more businesses to be involved. It allows for more innovative ideas to get off the ground. When there is so much attention focused on assisting Africa, we shouldn't call it a bad thing, but it certainly makes no sense to invest heavily in the wrong types of interventions.

MARTIN: How would you recommend, though, that people address their relationship with Africa going forward, outside of Africa, who - meanwhile, who want to see Africa grow but who also feel like they're damned if they do, they're damned if they don't? If they don't participate in the life of the continent, then they're bad and uncaring. If they do, people say, you know, you're heavy-handed, you're wrong. You're doing the wrong thing. How would you recommend that these relationships proceed going forward?

OLOPADE: I think they ought to be driven by, first, a very measured respect, and they should be grounded in listening. I think one of the amazing things about the opportunity I had in traveling widely trying to cover such an ambitious set of issues was that I learned so much just by listening to people articulate the particular constraints they were facing, the needs that they had and what they thought might be the most helpful. And I realize that may be difficult to do at a distance. One is not always able to sort of, you know, do the ground-level, shoe-level reporting work that I was able to do. But I do think more listening to what is so encouraging, which is a wider panoply of voices both from, you know, the African continent and from its diaspora, that are issue-related, that are at least targeted at self-identified difficulties.

I think one of the biggest issues with, let's say Toms Shoes or other kinds of charity, that, you know, provide some physical good, is that it is so much more about the convenience of the person giving it than the person getting it. The idea that people are sitting on their hands, the idea that people are waiting around for, you know, clicktivism, or the annual, you know, donation check, or for the shipment of Super Bowl T-shirts from the losing team to come in, it truly offends me. One of the more poignant moments for me in reporting this book, and I mention it early, is going to the airport very early in the morning, you know, and people just walking to work.

That is happening across the continent every morning. People walk long distances in the dark, having woken up, you know, and bathed in the dark to provide for their families. And that, rather than that image from the U.N. poster of, you know, dusty feet waiting for a handout, is what I would like people to take away. You know, in the book, I try and spotlight and enumerate them so that we can all respect, number one, and also learn from the spirit.

MARTIN: Dayo Olopade is the author of "The Bright Continent: Breaking Rules and Making Change in Modern Africa." It's out this week. And we caught up with her in our bureau in New York. Dayo, thank you so much for speaking with us.

OLOPADE: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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