|Africa's Valuable Assets - A Reader in Natural Resource Management (WRI, 1998, 464 pages)|
|1. Africa's Wealth, Woes, Worth|
Peter G. Veit, Tanvi Nagpal, and Thomas Fox
To most Americans, sub-Saharan Africa summons up only heartrending images of relief workers feeding emaciated infants, or United Nations peacekeepers struggling to keep the peace amid anarchy, or, recently, doctors struggling to contain horrible diseases.1 Prime-time television coverage and articles in the Atlantic Monthly, the Washington Post, and other influential publications persistently portray Africa negatively: swollen bellies, brutal dictators, gun-toting children, chaotic cities, and parched fields. Even the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has described foreign assistance as "pouring money down a rat hole."
Recognizing that such images of disaster greatly discourage support for and investment in this continent, Africans and others who appreciate Africa's many faces have tried to alter these stereotypes. Margaret Maringa, a Kenyan attorney, calls Africa "the land of civilization and rich natural resources," as well as "the land of the most perplexing issues of our time: slavery, famine, refugees, ethnic conflict, repressive and lethargic systems of governance." She goes on to say that "Africa has a false veneer of serenity over the restless energy of its people," and that "a formula is yet to be discovered for harnessing this energy to construct a positive, sustainable future."2
Maringa is right on both counts. Although a single development strategy or "formula" for change may be elusive, Africa embodies many positive images of potential and progress, along with more sobering realities and prospects. Several countries are making noteworthy strides in political, economic, social, and environmental reform. And many millions of citizens and thousands of communities are working locally, individually and in groups, to improve their own well-being.
A careful look at the images and facts that describe today's Africa reveals why investors and supporters should not give up hope in this misunderstood and much maligned continent. Africa has great strengths, both human and material. Although both people and natural resources have been severely exploited in the past by colonial powers, indigenous political and military leaders, and foreign interests - often with U.S. support during the Cold War - the resource base can still meet the needs of Africans as well as contribute to the growth of the global economy. Community and other local initiatives for maintaining this base - the foundation of household livelihoods and well-being - abound. They demonstrate clearly that many positive ideas and promising initiatives are underway in Africa, that the untapped potential for growth is substantial, and that numerous public and private initiatives are setting the stage for this growth and are beginning to show results. Africa's needs as well as its potential justify a greater interest on the part of public and private investors in its economies and its people, and a renewed hope in its future. Even those like Robert Kaplan who have focussed on Africa's negative attributes argue that "helping Africa is strategically important if only in terms of cold self-interest."3