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.