Is it time for us to update our perception of Africa?

The stereotypes about Africa still remain heavily outdated

Ask the average Briton what comes to mind when they think of Africa, and many of the same ideas will come up: poverty, starvation, disease and lack of development. Portrayals of Africa in Western culture tend to be stereotypical and reductive, infringing on our consciousness only in the form of patronising and generalising charity adverts. Ask someone to describe Rwanda, and they’ll think immediately of the appalling genocide in 1994, and assume the country is still in a state of chaos and conflict today. Tell them that Rwanda is one of the greatest economic success stories the world has ever seen, that it has a stable and representative government, that it is the nation with the most women in its parliament and with some of the most successful conflict resolution strategies and more often than not, they’ll look at you like you’ve told them pigs can fly.


Of course, it would be wrong to claim that all of Africa is thriving. As a continent, it faces devastating poverty and conflict: there is an ongoing civil war in South Sudan and Libya and insurgency in a number of nations. In many areas, Africa underperforms economically, and people suffer from disease, malnutrition and poverty. Yet despite this, Africa’s trajectory is firmly upwards. It is growing economically: in 1990, 56% of Africa’s population was classified as poor, compared to 43% in 2012. Its economic growth even eclipses that of the US, and foreign investment has tripled. HIV infections have plummeted by 75% due to successful public education campaigns.


So why is it that the West seems to ignore African success stories? Part of the reason is that people always want to assume the worst – instinctively, we focus on the most frightening and extreme aspects of a situation. But as well as this, one of the main reasons we see Africa in such a negative light is that so much of the narrative around it is shaped by charities who naturally focus on the worst in order to encourage people to make donations. This in itself is not entirely responsible for our misconceptions about Africa. The statistics and images that charities use are accurate: the issue is that they are responsible for so much of the research that is done on Africa, especially that research which reaches public consciousness. If you look up poverty statistics in Africa, some of the first results are published by SOS Children’s Villages and Africa Renewal, which are naturally selected to show the worst possible picture. The problem is exacerbated even further by a public perception of Africa as homogenous. It is a huge and diverse continent with different levels of economic development, yet many people assume the appalling poverty depicted in adverts exists all across Africa, which is why modern cities like Lagos and Addis Ababa often don’t fit into Western perceptions of the continent.


Part of the problem is that attitudes towards Africa have remained stagnant for several generations. Despite the rapid rate of change in Africa over the past few decades, many people assume it is in the same economic state as it was in the 20thcentury. People often inherit this attitude from their parents, who describe the Africa they knew when they were younger to their own children. One only needs to look at the repeat of 1984’s ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ released in 2014, to show how attitudes are taking a long time to catch up with Africa’s development. Much of the West’s patronising attitude toward Africa is inherited from a colonialist viewpoint. Although it is thankfully rarer nowadays for people to assume African people are inferior, the ‘white saviour’ complex is still very much alive. This can cause Westerners to feel the continent is in need of their help or expertise. It is this mindset that has seen the rise of students going to volunteer in Africa, despite often have no expertise on the problems of the region they are volunteering in.


The outdated and inaccurate views on Africa held by many people in the UK, though by no means all deliberately, can have serious consequences. The more Africa is portrayed as unsuccessful and underdeveloped, the less foreign investment and tourism it receives. Although many charities do outstanding work, there is also some heavy-handed and poorly delivered aid from charities which know little about the continent they are trying to help. Attitudes need to change and a more accurate picture needs to be formed in order to improve the future of Africa.


Lucy VII