There is still an urgent need to shine a light on the big issues facing the continent.
I make my living by telling Africa’s positive stories. As a communications consultant working with companies and not for profit organisations, I promote a narrative of economic and social development across the continent. I am part of a movement of communicators determined to balance the prevailing portrayal by many commentators of the continent as broken, unable to help itself, hindered by corruption, conflict and climate change.
Over the years that narrative of Africa as a helpless victim has faded. Africa is increasingly portrayed as a continent with agency; rising up not being lifted up. A continent blessed with a young population of creatives, entrepreneurs, hustlers, tech disrupters and social businesses. We tell tales of a dynamic population of self-starters, enabled by progressive state and non-state actors that are creating policies and partnerships that power African led change.
It is vital to promote progress and the huge opportunities that exist for Africa. Celebrating success and telling a positive narrative attracts investment and encourages governments to adopt pro-growth and development policies.
However, there is a risk that in this understandable urge to proudly tell positive African stories, we airbrush out the less attractive truths about where the continent still faces fundamental challenges and threats.
The eyes of the world are drawn to glamourous growth areas as targets for funding, investment and policy development. As a result there is a risk that attention and resources become diverted from the immediate day to day existential concerns of millions of Africa’s most excluded and vulnerable people.
A few sobering facts about sub-Saharan Africa: 288 million school-aged children are not enrolled in school1. 90 percent of children cannot read or understand a simple text by the age of ten2. 278 million people suffer from chronic hunger3. One fifth of the African population is undernourished4, and 55 million children under the age of five are stunted due to severe malnutrition5.
50 percent of the region’s population has no access to electricity6 and only 39 percent of the population has clean water connected to their homes7. Africa has the lowest number of internet connections globally with just 22 percent of the population having access8.
The fact that there is even a group of diseases called “neglected tropical diseases” (NTDs) speaks volumes. This forgotten and largely ignored health blight accounts for 200,000 deaths and 19 million disability adjusted life years lost annually9. The economic and human impact is heart-breaking.
Organisations such as The END Fund, the AU with Uniting to Combat NTDs and the Higherlife Foundation work to ensure NTDs are not neglected by governments, non-state bodies and healthcare providers. They operate in a highly competitive environment, with often overwhelming demands placed on highly indebted African governments, with minimal tax revenues and a reliance on international aid and investment.
Governments must decide which is more important: education, health, infastructure, agriculture, digitisation, renewables, manufacturing, or creative industries. In reality, there are large gaps to close in all these areas and perhaps inevitably, priority is given to more high-profile projects that build national pride.
As a result we overlook Africa’s long standing traditional challenges, which have for years shaped Africa’s negative reputation, which we are keen to put behind us. If our African story telling sleepwalks into propaganda, we excise the lived experiences and risk leaving behind millions of the continent’s most neglected people.