Karen Rothmyer insight on “Afro-optimism”, gloom and the media

Karen Rothmyer writes her latest insightful dispatch from Nairobi in the current issue of The Nation, discussing perceptions of the dire state of Africa surrounding the reporting on the status of the Millennium Development Goals against the recent Sala-i-Martin and Pinkovskiy study concluding that there is significant progress in poverty reduction.

Sitting here in Kenya, I find it hard to believe that the situation is really as grim as portrayed by the UN, the World Bank and most of the NGO crowd. OK, maybe the rapid growth of Nairobi shopping malls, complete with fake waterfalls and expensive dress shops, is mainly a middle-class phenomenon. But whenever I travel in the countryside I am equally struck by the fact that so many rural women sport stylish braids or other hair designs—a far cry from the simple head scarves of forty years ago.

So I was very excited a couple of months ago when I read a Reuters story about a new study by two academics, Xavier Sala-i-Martin, a Catalan economist who teaches at Columbia, and Maxim Pinkovskiy, an MIT doctoral student, titled “African Poverty Is Falling… Much Faster Than You Think!” In the paper, published under the auspices of the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER, the sober outfit that decrees when recessions have begun and ended), the two argue that “the conventional wisdom that Africa is not reducing poverty is wrong…. In fact, since 1995, African poverty has been falling steadily.” The reductions have occurred, Sala-i-Martin and Pinkovskiy report, in all types of countries and all regions. Moreover, economic growth hasn’t benefited only the elites; inequality within countries has declined throughout the continent.

For several days after reading the Reuters piece, I checked the Internet to see how other major news organizations, especially those in the United States and Britain, would follow Reuters’s lead. Given the media’s appetite for provocative news from the world of science and health—whether on how fast the polar ice caps are melting or the value of drinking a glass of wine a day—I assumed that sooner or later everyone would want to report on this latest case of man-bites-dog. But apart from mentions in a couple of blogs and one piece in the Guardian, there was hardly a squeak. (I did find some earlier references to a possible fall in African poverty, but none so definitive or high-profile as the Sala-i-Martin and Pinkovskiy paper.)

Karen is a very perceptive observer from a long career as a reporter, and writes with a degree of care and understatement that may also reflect her experience as an editor and journalism teacher. She has a frame of reference in Kenya that goes back to the Peace Corp and she always seems to know who to talk to, so I give her thoughts on these things great weight.

Part of what is going on here really is the basic problem that too much of the information that we hear about Africa is generated through or at least influenced by a thick filter of self-interest, if nothing other than that of people looking out for their own perceived career circumstances. It’s not as if that is not the case in whatever policy area domestically in “the West”, but it may be harder to spot in regard to the state of economies in Africa.

Another factor, at least for people like me in the U.S., is the realization that most of us are relatively oblivious and complacent–so those of us who have experienced a bit of Africa do tend to want to whack people over the head a bit in hopes of generating just a bit of interest or awareness.