Africa rarely gets a break — in the news headlines, anyway. But as the spread of the deadly Ebola virus continues to dominate the news cycle, there's a very different story about Africa that threatens to be forgotten.
One way to start that story is with the nearly $1 billion worth of deals to be announced this week between the United States and Africa, at a historic U.S. summit that will bring President Obama together with the leaders of more than 40 African nations.
The deals themselves are beside the point — "a bit of a pageant," says Jonathan Berman, author of Success in Africa, a book of interviews with African CEOs.
"Those deals are either developed beforehand or they're not yet fully baked. So that's not really what a summit does," Berman says. "What I think a summit can do, and what I think this summit in particular can do, is change a narrative ... change perceptions."
Seeing Growth, Meeting Counterparts
Berman says the narrative about Africa needs to change from one of "war, disease and poverty to one of hope, aspiration and opportunity." And perceptions need to be updated to reflect a continent that contains six of the 10 fastest-growing economies in the world, and is home to an increasingly educated middle class hungry for Western goods.
Berman says American businesses have not, for the most part, taken advantage of investment opportunities on the African continent. China's volume of trade with Africa is 2.7 times that of the U.S.
He blames old stereotypes, in part, for holding the U.S. back. "Businesspeople are not that much different from other people," he says. "They're informed by the ecosystem around them ... by what they heard growing up."
Growing up, many heard the constant calls to feed the starving children in Ethiopia. But Ethiopia's growth rate, according to the World Bank, has now exceeded China's. So Berman says this summit has a corrective aim: to enable meetings between American CEOs and African CEOs and leaders.
Those meetings matter because ultimately, Berman says, an executive needs to go beyond the numbers and ask: "With whom am I going to do business?"
That very question was recently posed not to a business executive, but to a human rights activist named Tutu Alicante, in exile from Equatorial Guinea. It's a country where oil riches have resulted in the highest GDP per capita in all of Africa, while real wealth is stuck in the hands of a few.
The actual poverty rate in the nation, which Tutu calls a "perfect kleptocracy," is over 75 percent; meanwhile, the family of President Teodoro Obiang controls all of the oil revenues.
President Obiang not only is invited to the White House summit, but also is the featured guest at a separate forum this week with the Corporate Council on Africa — a forum intended to drum up more investment in the country. Alicante says that's the precisely wrong way to bring change to Africa.
"In South Africa [in the '70s and '80s] it took companies boycotting the apartheid regime in order for that regime to change," Alicante says. "It wasn't investing further into the apartheid regime that got them to change."
'Not Meant To Be Solved On American Soil'
The U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit has been criticized by international groups for not inviting more human rights groups and government reformers.
Chris Byaruhanga works for the international anti-poverty group ActionAid. He's been honored by the White House's Young African Leaders Initiative for his work in his native Uganda, for trying to bring transparency to oil deals. He reports on deals that seem to line official pockets instead of helping ordinary Ugandans.
Byaruhanga has been called a saboteur by his own government. But surprisingly, he does not want his president to miss this opportunity to come to Washington, D.C., to this summit and make deals. (President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda is indeed one of the honored guests.)
"I want investment to come to Africa so badly," Byaruhanga says. "I have three children that I want to work in Uganda when they come of age."
But Byaruhanga says keeping African governments accountable is his job and the job of other young middle-class, educated Africans, more than the job of American corporations.
"Our concern with government is not even meant to be solved on American soil," he says. "So let them come and sign these deals. But when you come back home, tell us what you've done, and allow us to make some input."
Byaruhanga is trying to change another old perception about the continent — that Africa always seems to need help from the West. His new narrative: Africans can help themselves.
LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer in Washington.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
And I'm Steve Inskeep at our studios at NPR West in Southern California. Good morning. We take note today of an underreported story of the developing world. It's a story from Africa, which often seems to be developing badly.
WERTHEIMER: The home of ethnic power struggles, wars that have killed millions and an Ebola outbreak is also the home to some of the fastest-growing economies in the world. If you make a list of the 10 most rapidly growing economies, six are in Africa.
INSKEEP: It's a continent with a lot of tech-savvy young people and a growing middle class. And it's the focus of a summit meeting starting today in Washington. NPR's Gregory Warner has more.
GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: There are some $1 billion in deals due to be announced this week between the United States and Africa, announced at a historic U.S.-Africa summit convened by the White House, hosting more than 40 African presidents in Washington, D.C. But Jonathan Berman, a fellow at Columbia University, says this summit is more than just deals.
JONATHAN BERMAN: That's a bit of a pageant. Those deals are either developed beforehand, or they're not yet fully baked. But that's not really what a summit does. What I think a summit can do, and I think this summit in particular can do, is change a narrative, is change perceptions.
WARNER: Change perceptions about Africa that Berman himself has been trying to update. His book, "Success In Africa," features interviews with African CEOs and the historic opportunities that he says a lot of American businesses stuck in old thinking about the continent are failing to take advantage of.
BERMAN: Business people are not that much different from other people, right? They're informed by the ecosystem around them, by what they see every day in theaters or what they heard growing up.
WARNER: And growing up they heard, feed the starving children in Ethiopia, not - that Ethiopia's growth rate, according to the World Bank, just exceeded China's. So Berman says this summit has a corrective aim to enable meetings between American CEOs and African ones and African officials.
BERMAN: Because ultimately, an executive who's making an investment decision can look at the numbers, but he or she is going to want to know, with whom am I going to do business?
WARNER: So with whom are they going to do business? Well, I put that exact question to Tutu Alicante. He's a human rights activist in exile from Equatorial Guinea. It's a country where oil riches have resulted in the highest GDP per capita in all of Africa. So good news, except the actual poverty rate is over 75 percent.
TUTU ALICANTE: We are talking about a country in which torture still happens every day. And the judiciary is not independent. The laws set the stage up for what exists today, the perfect kleptocracy; a situation where one family controls all the oil revenues.
WARNER: That one family is the family of President Teodoro Obiang. President Obiang is not only invited to this White House summit; he's also the featured guest at a separate forum this week with the Corporate Council on Africa - a forum to drum up more investment to the country, which Tutu Alicante says is the precisely wrong way to bring change.
ALICANTE: If you look at history, I mean, let's look at South Africa. It took companies, it took businesses boycotting the apartheid regime in order for that regime to change. It wasn't investing further into the apartheid regime that got them to change.
WARNER: This Africa summit has been criticized by international groups and some African activists for not inviting more human rights workers and government reformers. Chris Byaruhanga works for the international anti-poverty group Action Aid. He's been honored by the White House's Young African Leaders Initiative for his work in his native Uganda where he tries to bring transparency to oil deals. So for instance, he'll report on a deal that seems to line official pockets instead of helping ordinary Ugandans. He's been called a saboteur by his own government. And yet, he wants his president to go to the summit, come to Washington and make those deals.
CHRIS BYARUHANGA: I want investment to come to Africa so badly, so badly. I want industries to come to Africa. I have three children that I want to work in Uganda when they come of age.
WARNER: And he says it's his job and the job of other young, middle-class, educated Africans to bring pressure on these African governments more than it's the job of the American corporations.
BYARUHANGA: Our concern with government is not even meant to be solved on American soil. Our concern with government is back home.
So let them come sign these deals, but when you come back home, tell us what you've done and allow us to make some input.
WARNER: Byaruhanga's trying to change another old narrative about this continent - from the Africa that always seems to need help from the West, to the Africans that can help themselves.
Gregory Warner, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.