Against the Gospel of “Africa Rising”

Almost ten years ago, Binyavanga Wainana mocked the relentless bashing of Africa for what it is: ignorance. Nowadays, however, a new gospel could use similar deriding: “tell them six of the ten fastest growing economies in the world are in Africa; drop names like Aliko Dangote and Isabel Dos Santos alongside Magatte Wade and Bethlehem Alemu; point to the 300 million middle class Africans; showcase the bustling cafes and glossy shopping malls with the latest products; spotlight the growing cities with towering structures; and always summon technology as your solution for everything. If they mention conflict, disease or poverty, chastise them for their antiquated colonial ways and refer them back to your points above.”

What’s the problem? In the interest of tackling the distorted and singular narrative of Africa as a continent of need, the “Africa rising” discourse is reinforcing its own one-dimensional story. Bolstered by recent advances in economic growth rates, Africa has been turned into a brand, a product to be packaged and sold on the merits of its financial worth. Its value is discussed and negotiated yet conversations too often exclude the context and implications of the current economic growth or the policies and institutions that sustain it. Africa is certainly rising, but how is it rising? And who is or isn’t rising with it?

The continent’s burgeoning middle class has driven much of that discourse. Stories about its growth, increasing wealth and expanding expenditure have contributed to portray an Africa on the ascent. Prospects are so promising that Mthuli Ncube, chief economist of the African Development Bank (AfDB), suggested that we recalibrate our development priorities:

[Aid and development strategy] will have to concentrate less on the bottom of the pyramid and move to the middle, which means it has to be supportive of private sector initiatives, which then are the way middle class people conduct their lives.

This sentiment is echoed regularly by development institutions.

Never mind that the middle class is a precarious and expansive category lumping together people spending $2 to $20 a day. Let’s also ignore that the so-called “floating class” at the bottom end of the spectrum represent almost 40% of said middle class, people who contend with questions like affording school fees and medical treatment on a regular basis. If we cherry pick the middle, what happens to the rest? It is one thing to use the middle class to unpack singular depictions of the continent, it is another to pivot all development policies and priorities towards them.

The economic model of the United States has informed much of the growth-oriented policies that international institutions prescribe and developing countries follow. But is that model any good? Over the last 25 years, the US economy boomed and collapsed, options in consumer goods grew exponentially while the number of consumers able to afford them shrunk. Despite political discourse on America’s middle-class, inequality increased. In the last four years, 95% of all income gains have gone to the top 1%. Inequality is a choice, as Paul Krugman argued recently, and

…the United States provides a particularly grim example for the world. Because, in so many ways, America often ‘leads the world’, if others follow America’s example, it does not portend well for the future.

On the continent, despite improvements in national economies, technology, and certain human development indicators, almost 2 Africans out of 3 remain affected by poverty. The number of poor people has doubled since 1980s and among the world’s 10 most unequal countries, six are in Africa. In a recent survey of more than 50,000 people in 34 African countries about current economic conditions, half say they struggle to meet daily needs like food, clear water, and medicine. The problem with the “rising Africa” narrative is that it isn’t creating a space for their voices and struggles to come to the surface. In centering the discourse on those who are doing well, the resource-poor are written out of mainstream narratives.

Beyond narratives, I am concerned about the dismissive tenor towards the structures capable of expanding the benefits of growth and of addressing inequality — government and the social sector. The state is often presented as a barrier, a liability ripe with corruption and inefficiency that can be leapfrogged by technology and enterprise. At most, the state’s value is to facilitate an investment-friendly environment for business. Where there is a problem, business can resolve it.

The World Bank and IMF have waged a sustained assault on African public services over several decades, and have never been called to account for the profound and lasting damage they have done.

With corruption, repression, and leadership failures in many countries, it’s hardly a mystery why the state has earned such a bad reputation. However, the implicit exclusion of governments absolves them from their responsibility and undermines the potential role of the state, further endangering the prospects of just and equitable societies. With a weak government, who will hold the private and social sectors accountable? And if the state is as irrelevant as the discourse is rendering it, then why does it occupy so much of the critique in the first place?

Increased investments in the private sector may in fact continue to strengthen the GDP’s of countries, as Tony Elumelu highlights, but they won’t address growing issues of inequality. Who will provide the social services needed to establish safety nets and protection for those at the bottom? Despite the creative offerings of essential services by the private sector, the fundamental needs like access to roads, clean water, energy, education and health must still involve the state. Business interests may flourish with or without a state, but countries can’t make progress without good governance. Leadership, transparency, civic engagement, organizing and advocacy must therefore remain central in the “Africa” dialogue.

The current discourse on Africa’s future also touts the end of aid and the rise of business as the continent’s savior. Aid agencies and NGOs are often viewed as relics of an old era, marked by need, charity and dependence, a stain on Africa’s history that has corrupted our collective stories. It is clear today that aid is not an engine of growth: the mistake of the past two decades was relying on it as a development tool. Many aid agencies and charities continue to offer much fodder for critique, of which Invisible Children’s public hunt for Kony has become a symbol. Still, the blanket rejection of this sector is a disservice to critical dialogue and necessary improvements.

The discourse on the role of aid too often lacks nuance and context. Efforts must be made to distinguish humanitarian intervention from development action, aid agencies from civil society actors, international organizations from local ones and, most importantly, the ineffective ones from those that are innovative and transformational. Demands for greater efficiency, accountability and impact are essential drivers of change but they shouldn’t come at the expense of the entire social sector. We must find ways to promote promising and effective models while eliminating those that are failing.

In doing so, Africans should remain vigilant. The concept of “African-led development” seems to have bridged many past divides, bringing under the same banner institutions like the World Bank with African advocates. Platforms that were once closed are now open to African voices, be it TED or the New York Times. It isn’t uncommon to see Africans represented on high-level panels organized by the likes of USAID. As the priorities and spaces of activists and institutions converge, we should however ask ourselves: which Africans are gaining entry to institutional and mainstream development spaces and why? Is this change indicative of tangible shifts in power or is it simply a cosmetic facelift? On the continent or in the diaspora, we have insights into a different and constantly shifting picture of our communities, and that complex mosaic is still missing from most narratives.

The conversation on Africa’s rise will likely continue to grow as various African nations climb the income ladder. Integral to that conversation are definitions and measures: is success defined by how much GDPs grow, how many phones Africans own, tech hubs they start, investments they attract or billionaires they count among their ranks? Or is it measured by the inequality gaps that are reduced, the livelihoods that are strengthened, and the freedoms expanded? In the prevailing “Africa rising” discourse it is all about the former. If we want meaningful and transformative change, we need to pursue the latter as well.

Image: from the series “The Forgotten” by Hahn + Hartung.



  1. Great article and I largely agree with what has been shared. Just want to point out that ‘good governance’ that the author calls for is just as ‘foreign’ if not more so, than the private sector development focus emphasized by the US that this article seems to cast a negative light on.

  2. The Synapse Center which the author’s organisation raises funds for – where 60 young people in Senegal are provided with training and create viable social enterprises – this is a great initiative! Yet the organisation can only help incubate the most promising 12 of these enterprises. Where are the other 48 talented participates going to head to for capital? Friends, family and fools? Banks at 20% interest rates?

    The authors organisation is certainly going a way to deal with inequalities, but these institutes that are running around spouting all this ‘Africa rising’ rhetoric are ALSO going a long way to create investor (local, foreign and diaspora) confidence in enterprise. I wouldn’t throw this discourse away so simplistically.

  3. I just tried to make the point that rising inequality is a sign for progress and doesn’t mean that there is rising poverty – rather the opposite.

    1. I’m not sure how much you know the logic of poverty, but rising inequality is not a sign of progress. In fact, it is a sign of progress of the wallets of the have’s of society. The rich need the poor to remain poor, in order to remain rich. it’s so simple.

    2. I agree with the author and this piece. While so many are frustrated with the narrative of poverty and suffering of Africa, the answer is not to create the opposite discourse to counter the former. We are lying to ourselves. What people fail to realise is that these ‘white saviours’ don’t give a care about how the continent is depicted, so long as they can make a profit from it and market it abroad. As Africans, we always lose out, we are not even able to be honest with ourselves and this constant cycle of denial is what gets us in the same shit each and every time. What she’s saying is truth, it’s a hard truth for some who live in the ‘afropolitan’ bubble and who want to desperately impress the outside world. Accept it, we have a long way to go, things are not getting better on the continent, we learned from our western counterparts how to conceal but not deal with poverty by shining the light on our booming middle classes whose purchasing power is fueled by excessive and ostentatious bank loans and the near self destructive speculative property market.

  4. Yes, we should all be equally poor. And if someone is trying to get ahead, let us work together to keep him/her down.

  5. Rising inequality indicates neither rising poverty nor the opposite. As the article points out, in some societies rising inequality is making a proportion of the population poorer, whilst in others incomes of the poor may be rising (just disproportionately). To me, what seems most critical, is that it is in those countries “leading” (as in those most advanced in following the model currently favoured within the global structure) are those that are heading towards increases in poverty, where standards of living and incomes are actually falling. Is this what we really want to achieve globally.

  6. I applaud the author’s intentions, passion, and grave concern for developmental efforts across Africa. However, what begins as an essay on public discourse and global branding, becomes mired in commentary in international development, politics, and the private sector. In communications, no two audiences should be treated equally, and thus, the topic of Africa (or any of its individual countries) should be discussed differently among those audiences. In the end, I found this article muddled at best and hypocritical at worst. The author fails to discuss individual topics with the same nuance and context, which she argues public discourse on the continent neglects.

  7. I find the article itself is contradictory. First your logo presents a misconception. Africa is NOT a country it IS A CONTINENT. Second to have a modern conversation about the term Africa Rising allows for a dialog of the modern day context of looking at urban development in African cities. Poverty is and has been for too long the perception and connotation associated with Africa. Now if I believe your article is saying there must be an inclusive dialogue of poverty and the whole African society then you must consider that from the impact of case studies of industrialized nations. Now to do so you must look at the cities. You sir have pulled a tail of string from a very big yarn ball and are going in circles.

  8. Thanks for this piece of profound info., after pondering & reflecting…it’s really helpful, clarifying the Reality of Africa, with no ‘Gloss.’ If one wants the truth …This-is-it.
    We have to face the reality about Africa. As long as there is no: Caring & providing Governing, Free Education etc…Africa will remain “crippled.” We will always love Afrika and always look for a “small light shining out of the darkness.”

  9. Well in my humble opinion sirs, there is an interesting angle to all this. It’s called social entrepreneurship. It’s investing in ventures that would not normally yield a huge profit but would impact a lot of people for good. You would then be doing good and making a profit which even though it wasn’t great like u invested in stable and decently growing equity fund in the US or UK it was one that built hospitals than ran efficiently but made a small profit, like Apollo Hospital in India that revolutionised its healthcare system. Or built schools or sanitation disposal businesses, these investments come from the diaspora and other funds that are invested in Africa’s rising and so are creating structures to cater to this new dynamism. These funds could be Aid donor money or private sector equity funds. Or even both.And these funds are available for impact investing in socialable projects using business processes able to run them sustainably so the could last longer or be more efficient thereby providing more services and expanding access to the sector. Aid agencies often collaborate with business to expand its service provision efficiently. This thereby distributes the wealth a bit more below by providing better health care or education and even power generation and water. The private sector already provides a great deal of services in most of our countries. 60 to 80 % in health ranging from country to country. And the story is not much different across other sectors of the economy education, agriculture, transport, telecommunications, entertainment, etc. investments or aid into these sectors as long as they support to build structures, capacity and people are contributing to Africa rising. And thus, isn’t then Africa still rising?

  10. Great article, well done, now this page is in the first page searching for “Africa rising”. This was the main purpose, right? Views

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