How Africa Gets Covered (or Doesn’t)

As regions go, Africa has always been the stepchild of the American media.
It is the continent where inexperienced reporters have been historically sent for their first overseas assignments, on the theory that if they screw up in Africa, it won’t be much noticed.
The assignment required little-to-no preparation, no languages, no history or study. All you needed was a young reporter willing to plunge into chaos and mayhem and black mischief and serve up the goods, colorfully if you please.
It is the continent where newspapers and magazines, and long, long ago, American television networks, figured that they could get away with a single bureau to cover all of the “black’ part. (North Africa, the “white” part, was traditionally stripped off and arbitrarily attached to the Middle East, or to southern Europe.
To get an idea of how absurd these propositions are, maps can be quite instructive, especially if they’re not of the Mercator Projection variety, meaning that they show Africa relative to the other continents at its true size.
It is the continent where, once newspapers got around to promoting African-Americans to their foreign staffs, itself a painfully belated occurrence, Africa became for a long time and for many the obligatory “one-and-done” assignment.
Finally, it is the continent where editors have always stretched credulity and good sense to speak commonly of events or trends taking place “in Africa.” This, on the theory that something short of a major catastrophe happening in any given African country was too insignificant to warrant the commission of precious column inches. Hence the silly phraseology — and you should watch for it — “across Africa…”
The best test for whether this is prudent, or even coherent usage is to take the formula and alter it thusly: “across Asia…” or “across South America…”
To be sure, there are occasionally continent-wide phenomena worth chronicling — witness the European financial crisis. But absent unusual events such as these, the “across____” formulation invites due ridicule, which brings us back to its lazy and commonplace use on the subject of Africa. One wishes to ask why use such vacuous wording?
There was a more immediate source of inspiration for this brief item, though. Yes, I almost forgot.
It was the Washington Post‘s “coverage” of the Congo electoral crisis in today’s paper (link attached). The astute reader will see that it doesn’t come from the Washington Post at all. No. It is an Associated Press article.
I have nothing against the AP, but the last thing the big, and still rich and influential American news outlets need to be doing is outsourcing their coverage of what is already the worst covered part of the world.
The Post, in fact, has a great tradition of Africa coverage. Many years ago, I got my start as a stringer for them, inspired and mentored by the formidable Leon Dash.
Let me tick off some other names (and this is surely not an exhaustive rundown):
Blaine Harden, Neil Henry, Lynne Duke, Emily Wax, Karl Vick, Doug Farah, Stephanie McCrummen, John Pomfret, Keith Richburg.
There is immense value in the kind of investment that this list implies — value for American media, and value for a news consuming public that has been historically and woefully underserved in terms of African news and analysis.
These objections of mine are far from sentimental. Many times, we’ve seen the cost (a la Rwanda) of being underinvested in African news when a major historical crisis erupts on the continent. Anyone who re-reads coverage of the first 30 days of the genocide in that country — which is instructive on many levels — will immediately know what this means and understand its importance.
Today is a time of opportunity on the continent. It is a continent with a middle class larger than India’s. China knows this, but do Americans? Click to read more about African growth
By mid-century, Africa will have nearly as many people as China and India combined. Can farmed out news coverage, like today’s story on the Congo, really be justified under the circumstances? Can the lazy old posting patterns, of no languages or prior study or training really be justified?
Africa deserves better, and so does the American public. Click to read the Post piece

In Africa, an Election Reveals Skepticism of Chinese Involvement (Atlantic)

An excerpt:

On the eve of Zambia’s presidential elections last week, one of the most common tropes about the vote was to describe it as a referendum on China. For a long time now, Zambia has been at the leading edge of China’s drive to expand its relations with the continent. Chinese have migrated to Zambia by the thousands, setting themselves up in mining, farming, commerce and small industry.

Although China is a latecomer to Zambia’s decades-old copper industry, it has quickly established itself as an ambitious rival to “traditional” mining partners like Australia and South Africa. As almost everywhere in Africa these days, Chinese contractors are building highways, dams, and other large infrastructure projects. Zambia even boasts two Chinese-built special economic zones, and has recently allowed banking in the Chinese renminbi instead of the kwacha, dollar, or euro to facilitate trade with China.

But these are not the only developments that have set Zambia apart, or at least placed it ahead of the pack in terms of observable trends in its relations with China. Zambia was one of the first African countries where the role of China and of Chinese people in the country became an explicit and potent political issue. During the campaigning for elections in 2006 and 2008, the newly elected leader, Michael Sata, made a sport of baiting China, calling its businesspeople in the country “profiteers,” not investors, and denouncing Chinese for “bringing in their own people to push wheelbarrows instead of hiring local people.”

“Zambia has become a province of China,” Sata thundered in one campaign rally back then. “The Chinese are the most unpopular people in the country because no one trusts them. The Chinaman is coming just to invade and exploit Africa.”


For Japan, a Long, Slow Slide

Blaine Harden – The Washington Post

Copyright The Washington Post
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, February 3, 2008
TOKYO — As the United States frets noisily about a recession, Japan is quietly enduring a far more fundamental economic slide, one that seems irreversible.
This country, which got rich quick in a postwar miracle of manufacturing and alarmed Americans by buying up baubles such as Rockefeller Center, is steadily slipping backward as a major economic force.
Fifteen years ago, Japan ranked fourth among the world’s countries in gross domestic product per capita. It now ranks 20th. In 1994, its share of the world’s economy peaked at 18 percent; in 2006, the number was below 10 percent.
The government acknowledged last month what has long been obvious to economists and foreign investors, if not to the Japanese public and many politicians. The minister of economic and fiscal policy, Hiroko Ota, told parliament that Japan could no longer be described as a “first-class” economy.
“I have a sense of crisis because Japan has not nurtured industries that will grow in the future,” said Ota, who offered no specific remedies for the crisis.
Japan is still the world’s second-largest economy, as measured by gross size, although the island nation has been surpassed by China in purchasing power. In coming decades, the economies of China and India will dwarf Japan’s, according to many projections. By 2050, Japan’s economy will be about the size of Indonesia’s or Brazil’s, according to a study by PricewaterhouseCoopers.
Japan’s slide relative to other major economies is not a tabloid tale of suddenly squandered riches. It is rather an insidious petering out of growth, productivity and innovation — and of political will to stop the slippage.
The slide has dovetailed with another quietly insidious crisis — the petering out of the population. Japan has the world’s highest proportion of elderly people and the lowest proportion of children.
By 2050, population decline will have reduced economic growth to zero, according to the Japan Center for Economic Research. Seventy percent of the country’s labor force will have disappeared.
Click to read more