A Minute With...

Brian Dill, expert on development in Africa

12/19/2012  11:45 am

Africa gets little routine attention through much of the year, but it is the focus of many year-end charity appeals for aid in dealing with hunger, disease and the ravages of war. The problems are real and the appeals understandable, but how much do they reinforce a single, gloomy view of the continent? Sociologist Brian Dill studies development and energy issues in Tanzania and in Africa generally, and teaches a course on Africa in world perspective. In an interview with News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain, Dill discusses what’s often missing from the American view of Africa, its past and future.

It seems we often envision Africa as one homogeneous place, and an exotic one at that.

tiny image of professor brian dillIt has always struck me as odd that Africa is routinely referred to as if it were a single country rather than a large, diverse continent. This tendency to homogenize has made it possible for truly exceptional situations, such as the genocide in Rwanda or the outbreak of the Ebola virus in Uganda, to misrepresent the reality of a place with 54 countries and nearly one billion residents. Imagine visiting inner city Detroit, eastern Kentucky, or Sioux County, North Dakota, and believing that these places represent the lifestyles and everyday experiences of most Americans.

Moreover, in terms of landmass, Africa is larger than the United States, China, India, Argentina, and western Europe combined! How, then, can we justifiably view Africa as a uniform place of difference? Africa is a place of incredible diversity – linguistically, culturally, ecologically and so on. And yet it is important to bear in mind that Africans – like people everywhere – want to raise their children in a secure world with the opportunities to improve their quality of life and fulfill their dreams.

Dictators and dysfunction are central to many impressions of governments in Africa, but you note that democracy is a growing trend in many countries.

Since 1990, societies in sub-Saharan Africa have made steady if sometimes halting progress toward the establishment of democratic institutions. Twenty-five years ago, political rights and civil liberties were in very short supply. The vast majority of the region’s residents lived under oppressive rule; authoritarian regimes were the norm; and postcolonial leaders exhibited little interest in either procedural or substantive democracy. Freedom House, an independent watchdog organization, classified only three countries “free”at the time. Today, nine countries in sub-Saharan Africa occupy this favorable category and another 21 are considered “partially free.”

We should also note that in Africa, as elsewhere, democracy is more than mere procedures and institutions. The advancement of democracy in African countries will require the ongoing commitment of their citizens. On this point, the trends are also favorable. Surveys conducted over the past decade by Afrobarometer, an independent research group, have consistently demonstrated that there is widespread support for democracy and a clear rejection of authoritarian alternatives. That is, the vast majority of Africans surveyed maintain that democracy is preferable to any other form of government and that they continue to support it even when they are dissatisfied with its capacity to deliver improved living standards.

When judging charity appeals for Africa, what should we look for?

Before sending a check to Africa, consider that similar problems and poverty exist here and elsewhere around the globe – they simply do not receive the same attention in the media. If Africa appeals to your commitment to social justice, and there are many good reasons it might, consider vetting a charity organization through givewell.org, an organization dedicated to evaluating charities and helping donors decide where to send their support. I have found that it can be difficult and time consuming to assess a charity’s effectiveness, or bang for your buck, simply by looking at its website and highly polished publications.

But it is important, in my opinion, to know more about how my money will be spent by an organization. For example, does the lion’s share of the charity’s resources pay the salaries of American or European program officers, or does it go to the projects that will have a meaningful impact on people’s lives? How sustainable are these projects? That is, what will happen once the project is completed and the charity has left the scene?


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