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Why hope in Africa is not a paradox.

Lydia Polgreen, writing in the NY Times “Week in Review“, is fascinated by an apparent paradox – Africans, who objectively have some of the worst prospects for living full, healthy and prosperous lives, are the world’s most optimistic people. She cites her own experience as an Africa correspondent and a recent Gallup poll, which surveyed the hopefullness of 50,000 people around the world to conclude, “Hope, it seems, is Africa’s most abundant harvest.”

Polgreen is a good correspondent and is somewhat less prone to the relentless cataloging of African horrors that usually masquerades as Africa “coverage” in Western media. But it seems somewhat ludicrious to illustrate an article on hope with examples and photos from a Darfurian refugee camp in Chad. This sort of example leads to the sort of reductionist thinking expressed by Meril James, the secretary general of Gallup International, which comissioned the poll:

“There is a sense that when things can’t get worse you’ve reached rock bottom, so things must improve,” Ms. James said.

While that’s no doubt true in Darfur, it’s a massive oversimplification to argue that “rock bottom” is the reason that explains optimism across the African continent, including in the many countries that are far from rock-bottom. Indeed, optimism is a trait the Gallup survey found across the continent, not just in countries facing war, famine or other strife. It also seems, to me, somewhat patronizing to conclude that the strength of faith – especially Christian faith – in Africa accounts for optimism in the face of harsh odds… though many of the other most optimistic societies in the world (Mexico, Venezuela, El Salvador) are intensely Christian countries.

It might be useful to ask the question, “Where are the least optimistic people in the world?” The answer, according to the World Values Survey, published in New Scientist magazine in 2003, is “Eastern Europe and Russia.” That survey found the most optimistic people in the world in Nigeria, and the least optimistic in Russia, Armenia and Romania.

By many “objective” measures – life expectancy, GDP per capita – life in Romania is easier than Nigeria. Even in Armenia, which has suffered economic collapse, civil war and natural disasters since the fall of the Berlin Wall, is wealthier than Nigeria in per capita terms, and is the beneficiary of massive aid from a wealthy diaspora in the US and extensive US development aid.

But Armenia is a profoundly depressed place, with a pervasive sense that the best days are in the past. A center of engineering and precision manufacturing in the Soviet Union, Armenians took great pride in being the master technicians of a superpower. Walking through the freezing open-air markets in Yerevan, you’ll now find retirees desperate to supplement their incomes by selling off high-quality machine tools, no longer needed as many Armenian factories are now used to shelter livestock from the weather.

In other words, it’s not hard to feel like things in Armenia are getting worse, not getting better. In many parts of Africa, on the other hand, there’s a very real sense for many people that life may be better for the next generation than for past generations.

A young man who moves from the Ghanaian countryside to Accra does so because he sees the possibility of a life qualitatively better than the life his parents led. Where their lives were governed by agricultural rhythms, lived off the grid, with poor medical care and schooling, he’s able to aspire to a manufacturing or service-sector job, electric power, a television, and perhaps a chance to emigrate and continue his schooling or work abroad, sending money home to his parents. His dreams may be derailed by the harsh realities of Ghana’s fragile economy, or by any of the health, economic or political challenges of contemporary Africa… but the dreams are realistically optimistic, not impossibly so. His life is guaranteed to be different from the life his parents led, and by some metrics, is likely to be better.

It’s easy for readers – and even smart commentators like Polgreen – to forget how young most African nations are. Even in Ghana, the first nation to shake off colonial rule during the post-colonial last half century, many people remember the pride of independence and the pain of colonial rule. Looking back to years where people couldn’t govern their own countries or move freely in their own nations, is it so hard to believe that many Africans could be profoundly hopeful, despite misrule, corruption and civil violence?

It’s harder for Americans to be optimistic about Africa than Africans. It’s rare that we get the chance to see Africa rising. Go to almost any African capital and you’ll see new construction, new businesses, power lines, radio and TV stations, internet cafes, new houses and cars. These trappings of luxury may be unavailable to many of the people living in these capitals, but they are aspirational goods – people can reasonably believe that, with education, luck and work, they or their children might have a good house, a nice car, the chance to travel abroad.

African economies have a high degree of income inequality, but their aspirational quality helps prevent this inequality from being highly destabilizing. In this sense, these economies resemble the US economy. Ours is one of the most unequal in the world, but the ability of Americans to dream that they’ll become wealthy – either through winning the lottery or by founding the next Microsoft – means that political proposals to redistribute wealth by raising taxes tend to fail. If you sincerely believe you might become wealthy, you’re less likely to want to tax your future self, even if those taxes might benefit you in gaining a better education, starting a business or otherwise climbing the social ladder. America currently has less class mobility than Britain, but rising levels of inequality haven’t yet led to labor riots or class warfare as there’s a perception that there are not structural barriers preventing class mobility.

(North Americans, by the way, are happier than Romanians, though not as happy as Nigerians.)

I don’t mean to dismiss the very real challenges that almost every African nation faces in growing its economy, building healthcare and educational systems and providing real opportunities for all its citizens. But I worry that we systematically deny the possibility of African success with articles like Polgreen’s, which marvel at the possibility of hope in the face of a continent (mis)characterized by “misery”.

5 thoughts on “Why hope in Africa is not a paradox.”

  1. Last summer there was an article in Harpers contrasting the reactions of Londoners to the Blitz where 40,000 were killed to the recent bombings. A point made was in WW II people broadly shared a vision that a better world was possible and few believe that today.

    Global Voices is wonderful it allows people like me not only to listen to what the world is saying but to add my voice.

    Sure, what I hear isn’t always easy, at least I don’t like to imagine myself as an “ugly American.” I would hope that more Americans would pay attention to political and enviromental issues in Africa and many of these issue are deeply disturbing. It’s harder to explain the great benefits for paying attention, but the optimism of the people is surely one of them.

    Today I received email from a friend in Uganda. Various projects he’s working on have hit some rough places. Participating within a network of people concerned about these projects is very encouraging even during the rough patches. We’re working together to identify problems and come up with solutions.

    Africa is such a big and diverse place. It’s a good thing to have a view for the big picture. But it’s much easier to pay attention to the big picture when we’re paying attention to a friend or a small group of friends in Africa.

    Global Voices helps people abroad to get a human sized view of things. After all must of us are just regular people not rock stars, corporate chiefs, or politicians. We may be the little people, but that’s where the action is.

    It’s said that depressed people often have a clearer view of the way things really are. It’s important to be clear-eyed, but our compositions of life benefit from dreams as well.

    The discouraging thing about the war-forever campaigns being waged now is not the cold calculations of the dangers of terrorism, but the lack of vision towards a better tomorrow. Africans and the billions of people in the global south maybe dreaming the dreams without which all is hopeless.

    We in the West can systematically deny the possibility of African success. The effect of this denial on the ground is yet to be known. Nurturing the the possibility is a good thing, but whether we in the West deny or affirm it probably won’t rule the day.

    What dialog and collaboration with people in Africa can offer people in the West are reasons to be hopeful about the prospects for humanity.

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  3. This reminds me of research on happiness levels, which was done a few years ago in England. Among the happiest were Bangladeshis, which seemed counterintuitive. But when the researchers dug deeper, one reason was the same as the one you mention: the sense that things were improving. The other was that faced with real problems, people had less tendency to get despondent about not making the cheerleading squad, or whatever. The test case would be to poll the ruling classes in, say, Nigeria. If their hopefulness levels were more similar to those in, say, Houston, that would provide further support for the idea.

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