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News >  Nation/World

Summit puts focus on continent’s image

Robyn Dixon Los Angeles Times

CAPE TOWN, South Africa – It’s not easy to market a vast continent of more than 50 nations as a desirable, upbeat sort of place, when at any time there might be war breaking out, hunger, people dying of AIDS and malaria, others struggling in poverty, and entrenched government corruption.

But African leaders and businesspeople meeting here for an economic summit this week took on the challenge of how to promote a positive “brand Africa.” Many argued that the continent’s real problem was not death, disease and criminality, but the international journalists who wrote about them without noting African successes.

“We are not angels, but we can’t all be devils all the time,” said Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa at a news conference at the Africa Economic Summit of the World Economic Forum, which ended Friday.

The talk of Africa’s image problem comes at an important moment, with international attention focused on the continent in the lead-up to a Group of Eight summit of leading industrial powers next month in Gleaneagles, Scotland. British Prime Minister Tony Blair is expected to use the summit to lobby for a doubling of African aid to $25 billion a year and cancellation of all the debt of poor African countries.

Despite Africa’s rich natural resources and a flow of international aid – often highly conditional and in the form of loans, not grants – poverty in Africa has worsened, not declined, in recent decades.

The Cape Town summit’s main purpose was to focus international business and political support before Blair’s big Africa push. But while the United States agrees broadly with most of the goals, it has its own approach on aid and debt relief and is wary of a British proposal to sell International Monetary Fund gold to help Africa.

If there was a contradiction between summit participants wanting to market Africa as a big success story at the same time as seeking debt write-offs and massive new aid, it was drowned out in the general criticism of the media coverage of Africa.

In the past decade, Africa has seen a dramatic transformation, with the resolution of many conflicts, leaders’ growing reluctance to deal with neighbors who grasped power illegally, and the spread of democratic elections, some freer than others. Economic growth in Africa on average has reached 5 percent.

All this, participants argued, added up to an attractive perception of Africa that could win investment, create jobs and help nations rise out of poverty.

Nicholas Stern, permanent secretary of the British Treasury, said reporters had failed to recognize improvements in African governance and the way aid is delivered on the continent.

“Journalists are very bad at doing this. Those who are professionally skeptical and cynical are often flying in the face of evidence,” he said.

Asked how to convince people skeptical of Africa’s successes, Pat Davies, chief executive of Sasol, a leading South African energy company, said he was “not strong on marketing and gloss.”

“Once the substance is right, then the perceptions will follow.”

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