It’s complicated, Africa version

Our perceptions of what’s taking place in Africa fluctuate between wild optimism and hopeless despair, cycling back and forth depending on this year’s headlines. Things are actually far more complicated, showing lots of reasons for some optimism simultaneous with indications of hard days now and in the future.

That’s what I learned from Walter Russell Mead’s post, Agony in The Congo.

(Why this post on that essay?  We need to understand the complexities of the world around us if we want to actually change the world.)

This mood flip happens in the coverage from both the MSM and what Mr. Mead calls the “Development Lobby.”  I’ve not picked up on his characterization before, but know what he means without having seen it explained. People reading this blog will also understand.

Watch the flip, from the Development Lobby claiming to…

solve Africa’s problems, {with} the press is all happy clappy about Africa’s inevitable ascent


something happens and the mood flips to despair: Nothing has changed in Africa, nothing can change.

Mr. Mead traces how technology and economic growth feeds this split in perceptions.  I can see that technological advances and increasing wealth feeds two trends.

On one hand, advancing capabilities allows new meds that cure diseases, gives knowledge how to build sanitation systems and advanced hospitals at the same time as making cultures rich enough that they can afford to build sewer systems, inoculate every child, build charitable hospitals and nationwide system of interstate highways, and require all new construction to be earthquake resistant.

On the other hand, those same technological developments and economies of scale allow everyone with a self-defined grievance to get hold of all the automatic weapons, RPGs, and land mines they want for a few bucks a piece. Doesn’t take much money to outfit a small guerrilla band and provide them decent telecommunications.

This leads some to extreme optimism that new technology will solve all our problems.  I must confess I tend in that direction.

Mr. Mead points out that even theology feeds the overreaction of perception.

Here’s my rephrasing of that idea.

Until the mid- or late-1800s, I understand the predominate thinking in the U.S. was that of post-millennialism. This is the idea that human progress would reform and advance society, solving all our problems. After we had made enough progress toward the ideal society, Jesus would return and perfect everything. Based on my partial understanding, this was an underlying driver behind abolitionism, temperance, and perhaps women’s sufferage. You see, we need to make society far better on our own effort before Jesus can return. Let’s get going!

Since that time the majority opinion, in the U.S. at least, has transitioned to pre-millennialism. A very short description, perhaps overstated, is that continued deterioration in the state of the world will lead to a horrible time of wars and tribulation after which Jesus will return. Or he will return in the middle or front end of the last round of horrible things, depending on your specific flavor of pre-millennialism. You see, of course everthing is getting worse because it has to before Jesus can return!

Our perceptions play out in complex ways:

Africa is modernizing today, and along with that process some very hopeful signs can often be discerned. But Africa looks set for a rough modernization. Crazy quilt colonial boundaries, ineffective elites, meddling foreign powers, resource curses, religious strife: all the ingredients are in place for a bloody and agonizing process of development and change.

With this perspective, the ongoing turmoil and recent battles in eastern Congo start to make some sense.

The leader of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, was previously hailed as someone who could heal the horrible trauma in his country. Currently he is perceived as the provocateur of the most recent fighting.

From that you can feed either the optimistic or pessimistic view of Africa.  Take your pick.  Or you can see the complexity:

The “good” parts of Kagame’s policies as seen in the west—an aggressive and clear eyed program to develop Rwanda, reconciliation after genocide, anti-corruption drives—are part of the same overall grand design as the “bad” ones: tight controls over Rwandan political life, arms purchases, support of militias and fellow Tutsi groups in the Congo.

It’s complicated everywhere:

National leaders in tough neighborhoods generally don’t fit well in neat moral categories. They mix serious accomplishments with staggering crimes. They combine a statesmanlike ability to manage a complicated foreign relations portfolio with hard and unwavering action where they think their vital interests are at stake.

(My dream is that someday I will be able write half that well!)

Check out the full essay. I likely didn’t do it justice.

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