Grain, fish, money: changing ‘the Africa story’

APR2014-cover“Africa = aid.” For decades this has been the story about African development in the Western and global news media. The Africa Progress Report 2014, launched today, turns that story on its head – and calls into question what we mean when we talk about “development.”

The report is called Grain, Fish, Money: Financing Africa’s Green and Blue Revolutions, and I was lucky enough to have the job of editing it. The report asks the hard questions about why Africa’s recent growth isn’t helping a lot of Africans.

The answer is reflected in the report’s title (and stunning cover). Africa is still overwhelmingly rural. “Development” in Africa has to mean economic development. That means African governments (with a bit of help from their friends) need to give farmers (and fishing communities) a much better chance.

Africa imports US$35 billion of food every year– food that could be supplied by African farmers themselves, if they had a chance to boost their productivity. Farmers need governments and investors to bridge the gaps in  infrastructure and financial services that are currently holding them back. The need for aid won’t go away soon, especially in the poorest countries. But it will go away faster if donors also help build those bridges (and roads, and ports).

There’s plenty else in the report – including some tough words about the plunder of Africa’s fisheries by foreign trawlers, especially boats from East Asia and Russia. That’s the story picked up today by the Financial Times and The Guardian.

What stands out for me is the idea that Kofi Annan expresses in the Wall Street Journal this morning: “Africa is a continent of great wealth. It is not poor.” Annan founded the Africa Progress Panel after retiring as UN secretary-general; his vision drives the Africa Progress Report.

Africa is rich – and not just in oil, gas and minerals. It is rich in fertile land, in huge fishing grounds, and above all rich in energy and ingenuity. Africa is rich, so why are many Africans poor?  That’s the very political question that this report asks – of African governments, as well as their friends and investors. And of countries whose trawlers and loggers are stealing Africa’s fish and timber.

“We need to change the narrative about Africa,” Kofi Annan said as he opened the expert consultation meeting on the report late last year. “It’s not all about aid.” This report has succeeded in doing that.

As a language person, I come back to that verb “develop.”  For far too long the story has been “Let’s develop Africa.” It’s time to change that to “Let Africa develop.” The difference is enormous. Africa moves from object to subject. It’s not a new idea. But this report shows how it can happen.

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