Perception problems: Africa and Afghanistan

Warning: a long-ass rant follows.

Bill Easterly spends a lot of time harping on examples of the Western media painting reductionist, racist, or sensationalist portraits of Africa — Africa as a place overrun by AIDS orphans, Africa as a continent of child soldiers, Africa as a wasteland full of weeping women and men missing limbs, Africa as permanently, unalterably poor, Africa as a place from which no technological innovation originates, Africa as a land of Big Men and corrupt bureaucrats (but no democrats), Africa as a place where tribe is everything, where the rule of law is anathema, where everyone totes an AK 47, where there are no paved roads and the only cars are aid agency landcruisers….and so on, ad infintium.

At least most of these pictures are partially true. Africa, as a continent of many very different countries, is faced with extremely serious problems. These problems should be neither denied nor glossed over. In fact, many of them deserve more –and certainly more sophisticated— coverage in the Western press. But the picture is not all bleak, nor is it static, and when we portray it as such, we run into the Africa Perception Problem.

In addition to being inaccurate and condescending, the Africa Perception Problem leads to some scary conclusions.

If we believe Africa is unchanging and somehow insulted from movements shaking and shaping the rest of the world, if Africa’s wars never end, if its economies never grow, if Ushahidi was never invented, and the SADC-PF isn’t about to adopt some of the world’s most ambitious democracy benchmarks for legislatures –well, it’s pretty much hopeless, isn’t it? And if it’s hopeless, there is no need to look closer, no need to invest, no need to spend money or, egads, blood, helping Africans help themselves. Just pen the whole place in and make sure none of its wretchedness escapes and contaminates the rest of the planet. If all else fails, bomb it from afar.


What’s interesting to me, as someone who follows events in Central Asia very closely, is how Afghanistan is framed in almost identical terms, giving us the Afghanistan Perception Problem.

The most obvious example I can think of is the following gem from Ralph Peters:

Regarding Planet Afghanistan, we still hear the deadly cliché that “all human beings want the same basic things, such as better lives and greater opportunities for their children.” How does that apply to Afghan aliens who prefer their crude way of life and its merciless cults?

Peters is a racist moron who despises Afghans the way Kevin Myers despises Africans. Few policy-makers, even on the political right, take him seriously.  But Peters’  views sit on a continuum, and there are less overtly racist ways of arguing that Afghans are inherently ill-suited for life in a peaceful, well-governed state.

The Cato Institute’s Malou Innocent has a Huffington Post piece up that is factually incorrect in, quite frankly, more ways than I have time or desire to address.

What interests me more is her description of Afghan society, because it is a common one not only in commentaries on the war effort, but on aid and development in Afghanistan also:

Our attempt to transform what is a deeply divided, poverty stricken, tribal-based society — while our own country faces economic peril — is nothing short of ludicrous, especially since even the limited goal of creating a self-sufficient, non-corrupt, stable electoral democracy would require a multi-decade commitment–and even then there’d be no assurance of success.

Is Afghanistan deeply divided? Yes.  Are tribal identities important? Yes. Is it poverty stricken? Corrupt? A long way from being a stable democracy? Heck yes!

But, like even the most problematic countries of Africa, Afghanistan is much more than its worst elements.

In that spirit, here’s another, and I believe fairer and more humane frame for Afghanistan:

Afghanistan has suffered at many hands for a very long time, and it is consequently a rough place. Afghanistan’s stories are stories of sorrow and loss and cruelty. Its human development indicators are among the worst in the world, corruption is rampant and worsening, and violence –against women, against children, against everyone– continues to tear at its social fabric.

At the same time, Afghanistan is also a place of stubborn hope, brimming with stories of survival against all odds. It is a place where earnest young civil servants toil long hours, most for little pay, to lift their fellow citizens out of poverty, where brave reporters risk –and sometimes lose—life and limb to uncover and publicize wrongdoing by those in power, where heroic midwives deliver babies in village clinics and pass their life-saving knowledge on to others, where young people who grew up knowing nothing but war teach eager students in packed classrooms, where human rights activists campaign to change discriminatory laws and reform the judicial system, where people so poor they live in rock caves love their children dearly and make sure they attend school.

Photograph by Steve McCurry for National Geographic. Caption reads: His family is poor, his clothes used. But 15-year-old Ali Aqa isn’t deterred: He plans to be a lawyer. Childhood memories include Taliban occupation of his village in Bamian. “They burned everything, even my school,” he says. “I pray to God no regime like that comes again.”

Photograph by Steve McCurry for National Geographic. Caption reads: His family is poor, his clothes used. But 15-year-old Ali Aqa isn’t deterred: He plans to be a lawyer. Childhood memories include Taliban occupation of his village in Bamian. “They burned everything, even my school,” he says. “I pray to God no regime like that comes again.”

As with Africa, if we in the aid world view Afghanistan was a vortex of misery and violence and nothing more (I recently heard someone refer to it as “a black hole”), we must conclude that it is hopeless, and assistance pointless.

However, if we view Afghanistan as a country of survivors, activists, dreamers, teachers, entrepreneurs, and strivers of all varieties, then it is not hopeless after all — difficult, yes, but not bereft of hope. And what we need to do is not abandon Afghanistan, but rethink how we can help its people build for themselves the kind of country and the kinds of lives they both want and deserve.

An Afghan friend of mine recently wrote, in a facebook wall response to the flurry of deterministic articles recently published about his country, that foreigners need to dispense with the idea of Afghans as inherently incapable of living differently than they do now. I heartily agree.

4 thoughts on “Perception problems: Africa and Afghanistan

  1. i really like this post. it may seem lame, but i think one of the best illustrations i’ve seen of afghanistan is A THOUSAND SPLENDID SUNS. fiction, yes, but it is still a beautiful book that intertwines Khaled Hosseini’s characters with afghanistan’s culture and events. i get too confused reading the news and history books.

    i agree with your point about rebuilding afghanistan, but i feel that you’re preaching to the choir here. how do you propose this action takes place? how do you propose the general population becomes more educated?

    also, i see you used an image by Steve McCurry. what do you think of his work? i find him appalling.

      • have you seen “search for the afghan girl”? after however many years he spent in afghanistan, he was surprisingly ignorant. granted, it could’ve been due to the editing of the film; however, as an infamous national geographic photographer, i expected him to be more respectful.

        for example, when he and the film crew arrived at a woman’s home, he was informed that he would have to wait until the following day to visit her because her husband wasn’t home. he let out a disgruntled sigh and complained “we have to wait until tomorrow?!” as if his mission should be a priority.

        he’s a great photographer, but i don’t approve of his methods or conduct.

  2. Although I suppose the comparison/contrast between “Africa” and Afghanistan has been there, lying out in the open for some time, I hadn’t personally made those connections in so many words until reading this post. I think you’re right on. Well done!

    My own opinion, in brief response to Sterling, is that the next steps would be to simply not abandon Afghanistan. To simply not write it off as a perpetual, irretrievable basket-case. To engage with Afghanistan as much as possible on it’s own terms, disabusing ourselves as much as possible of the tendency to estimate future possibilities based on our own ethnocentric understanding of the past and present.

    On photography: I find portraits by Steve McCurry evocative, haunting. I don’t know Steve McCurry the man at all, but I do know that you can’t get photographs like the ones he gets by being a jerk to people out in the field. Let’s hope he was having a bad day (as we all do from time to time), and that his behavior/public comments in “Search For The Afghan Girl” were/are not representative of how he typically conducts himself.

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