Africa Seeks More Positive Spin on Its ‘Brand’

At an economic summit, the media are blamed for not highlighting success stories on the continent as leaders seek financial relief.

By Robyn Dixon
Times Staff Writer

June 4, 2005

CAPE TOWN, South Africa — It’s not easy to market a vast continent of more than 50 nations as a desirable, upbeat sort of place when at any time there might be war breaking out, hunger, people dying of AIDS and malaria, others struggling in poverty, and entrenched government corruption.

But African leaders and businessmen meeting here for an economic summit this week took on the challenge of how to promote a positive "brand Africa." Many argued that the continent’s real problems were not death, disease and criminality but the international journalists who wrote about them without noting African successes.

"We are not angels, but we can’t all be devils all the time," Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa said at a news conference at the Africa Economic Summit of the World Economic Forum, which ended Friday. The talk of Africa’s image problem comes at an important moment, with international attention focused on the continent in the lead-up to next month’s Group of 8 summit of leading industrial powers in Gleaneagles, Scotland. British Prime Minister Tony Blair is expected to lobby for doubling African aid to $25 billion a year and cancellation of all the debt of poor African countries.

Some, like Niall FitzGerald, chairman of Reuters news agency, said world leaders had a rare opportunity to redress African poverty and disadvantage, and that forgoing it would shame the current generation.

Despite Africa’s rich natural resources and a flow of international aid, poverty there has worsened, not declined, in recent decades. The assistance is often highly conditional and in the form of loans, not grants.

The Cape Town summit’s main purpose was to focus international business and political support before Blair’s big Africa push. But although the U.S. agrees broadly with most of the goals, it has its own approach on aid and debt relief, and is wary of a British proposal to sell International Monetary Fund gold to help Africa.

If there was a contradiction between summit participants wanting to market Africa as a big success story while seeking debt write-offs and massive new aid, it was drowned out in the general criticism of the media coverage of Africa.

In the last decade, Africa has seen a dramatic transformation, with the resolution of many conflicts, leaders’ growing reluctance to deal with neighbors who seized power illegally, and the spread of democratic elections, some freer than others. Economic growth in Africa on average has reached 5%.

All this, participants argued, added up to an attractive perception of Africa that could win investment, create jobs and help nations rise out of poverty.

Nicholas Stern, permanent secretary of the British Treasury, said reporters had failed to recognize improvements in African governance and the way aid is delivered on the continent.

"Journalists are very bad at doing this. Those who are professionally skeptical and cynical are often flying in the face of evidence," he said.

In a session on "branding" Africa, Carol Pineau, an American producer of a promotional documentary on Africa, said images of starving African children from 25 years ago had lodged in people’s memories.

"We show Africa as if it has no economic life. We also show Africa as if it has no family life. It’s as though they wake up and go to war or a refugee camp," she said.

The optimism and unity of the summit cracked only once or twice, when the subject of Zimbabwe came up, offering an insight into the gap that remains between Western and African views on governance, poverty and aid.

Paul Applegarth, chief executive of the U.S.’ Millennium Challenge development program, which aids only countries that meet strict criteria on governance and democracy, stated that the organization would not give a dollar to Zimbabwe unless it made serious reforms.

Zimbabwe has been criticized for evidence of fraud in April’s elections, government arrests of thousands of small traders and the recent demolition of hundreds of shanty houses, which left thousands homeless.

"Should we put our money into Zimbabwe, where it’s going to be squandered? Or should we put it into countries that are poor but where the governments have said, ‘We want to change’? We will put our money into countries where aid will work," he said at a press briefing.

But Mkapa, one of the continent’s reformers, blamed Western journalists for what he saw as bias in highlighting Zimbabwe’s failures.

"All I can see is a resuscitation of old prejudices by developed countries against Zimbabwe, against a very firm assertion by Zimbabwe of the right to manage its own affairs," the Tanzanian president said.

African leaders have a system of peer review to promote good governance, but one analyst, Raymond Louw of the newsletter Southern Africa Report, questioned how credible the mechanism could be if leaders failed to condemn Zimbabwe.

Asked how to convince those skeptical of Africa’s successes, Pat Davies, the chief executive of Sasol, a leading South African energy company, said he was "not strong on marketing and gloss."

"Once the substance is right, then the perceptions will follow."

John Bryant Commentary — I think this is right on target! Let me know what you think….

Onward, with HOPE

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