Is Africa rising or reeling? That is what a recent New York Times piece sought to identify. The article ended up focusing too much on political turbulence in Ethiopia to make the point that the continent’s rise has been oversold.
The piece came in for some criticism. A response by Amadou Sy of the Brookings Institute partly argued that the continent was indeed rising. Another response by Lily Kuo in Quartz criticized the piece for lack of nuance in combining the diverse countries that make up the continent. The piece then made a deeper argument that many Africans had not felt their lives improve during the time Africa Rising was the theme among non-African media.
I want to take a different approach. When the non-African media talks about Africa Rising or Reeling, they are largely talking to themselves. Why would I say that? According to the United Nations (pdf) intra-African trade is only 14% of Africa’s total trade. 86% of Africa’s trade is with other parts of the world. The implications of this is that as Africans are not really doing business with each other, they are less likely to look for an overarching narrative of the continent (for financial purposes not sociological).
Sticking with the context that this burning desire for a simplistic narrative of Africa is
- for investment purposes and
- the rest of the world talking to themselves about Africa,
then it is possible to see how this otherwise strange aggregation makes sense.
The nominal value of Africa’s GDP is about $2.4 trillion, roughly the same as that of France or California! So it is tempting for people seeking an easily digestible narrative to report on whether you should include Africa in your emerging markets portfolio to look on a chart and say Africa is rising or reeling.
However, this does not excuse people who are seeking to present what is essentially a buy (Africa rising) or sell (Africa reeling) signal as a serious sociological analysis of the continent. For them the standards must be higher – even if they are only talking to each other.