Tuesday, August 09, 2005

The "dark continent" is now invisible

How does an entire continent remain invisible?

Check out any ad where a corporation claims to be "world-wide". See if they include Africa. For example, www.brother.com lets you click your region to go to its web page, but there's no button on Africa. I've also seen countless print ads where companies wanting to impress me claimed a worldwide presence, but left Africa out of their world. The last US company I worked for, which did have an office in Africa, divided the world into four regions including one called "EMEA" -- Europe, the Middle East, and oh yes, Africa. Now there's as unlikely a grouping of customers as I can imagine.

Despite Africa's huge size, its roughly forty countries together have only about a third of the population of a major nonwestern country like India or China. And with around 20% of all Africans HIV-positive, that number may well go down. So numbers are part of the problem.

Blame the rest on corruption -- though, as we've been finding out, there's plenty of that to go around, including the UN Oil-For-Food scandal in Iraq, Canada's sponsorship scandal (see the Gomery inquiry), and recent claims that top Israeli politicians leading the drive to hand Gaza over to the Palestinian Authority have foreign business partners who are already licensed by the PA to develop casinos on that land as soon as the homes there are bulldozed. Still, when most people think of Africa, their first thought is of corrupt leadership and chaos on the scale of Rwanda, Somalia and Zimbabwe.

Africa has a very small class of potential investors. I recently read that, not counting the top dogs with their numbered accounts overseas, the 100,000 wealthiest Africans have an average net worth of US$8-million, but there's a big gap between them and the average village dweller, whose entire possessions could be purchased with the average Canadian income tax refund.

Thirty years ago, countries in Africa and Asia had much the same GNP per capita as each other. Today, those Asian countries have 30 times the GNP per capita of the African countries. What did Asia do right, that Africa should have learned from? And how can Africa catch up now? There are enough resources in Africa that it ought to be wealthy. How can we achieve that in one generation or less?

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