May 21, 2024

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Africa: End the Negative Narrative, Africa is Thriving – AfDB Chief

9 min read

Nairobi, Kenya — The highly-anticipated AllAfrica Media Leaders’ Summit (AMLS) is convening in Nairobi, Kenya, to address the urgent need for a thriving and independent media landscape across Africa. The summit brings together top media leaders, owners, operators, key players, and government officials from 48 countries to mark the long-awaited return of the AMLS after a ten-year hiatus. The theme of the summit Re-engineering African Media in Times of Critical Transformation tackles pressing issues facing the industry in an era of rapid technological change.

Dr. Akinwumi Adesina, President of the African Development Bank (AfDB), delivered a keynote address stressing the need for a new narrative about Africa. He acknowledged the importance of a free and independent media for democracy and development in Africa. He highlighted the challenges that the media industry has faced due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the rise of social media. Dr. Adesina emphasized the need for critical thinking and discernment in the face of a constantly changing information landscape.

Adesina said the world of information is undergoing a dramatic transformation. The rise of the Internet, social media, and mobile phones has led people to rely less on traditional media sources like radio, TV, and newspapers. This shift means that more and more people are getting their news and entertainment online, with billions expected to have smartphones by 2030, especially in Africa. However, this new online world also presents challenges, as the ease of creating and sharing content, including potentially false information, can make it difficult to tell what’s true and what’s not.

“An independent, professional, responsible, and private media is critical to the freedom of speech, the development of democracy, and the strengthening of inclusive societies,” he said. “The unprecedented pandemic disrupted business models, altered audience relationships, squeezed revenues, and tested professional values and moral trust.”

“The rise of the Internet, digital and social media platforms has shifted the focus of audiences on reliance on radio, TV and print publications.

“It is a whole new world where the lines between fact and fiction can become blurred,” he added. “Subsequently, positive and good news on Africa goes missing, unmarred, or even simply missing.”

Africa needs a new narrative

Dr. Adesina underscored the critical role of information in Africa’s development, emphasizing how it’s produced, used, interpreted, and its ultimate impact. He expressed his pride in the African Development Bank’s achievement of maintaining the continent’s only AAA credit rating.

“We have been the only AAA-rated financial institution on the continent,” he said. Adesina attributed this success to the tireless efforts of his staff, the board, and the bank’s chair. He highlighted the importance of this rating, explaining, “Only then can we provide our 54 regional member countries in Africa with concessional financing that they need to accelerate development.”

This strong rating allows the bank to access global capital markets and secure affordable, long-term financing for African economies.

“This is critical for us to access global capital markets and to source cheap and long-term financing for Africa’s economy,” he explained. As an example of the bank’s success, he cited a recent $750 million bond issuance.

“Just a month ago, the Bank launched a landmark hiring act of $750 million, which was rated AAA by all five global credit rating agencies and was oversubscribed eight times by investors from around the world”. Dr. Adesina highlighted the significance of this achievement, going beyond just finances. “This marks the first time that any multilateral development bank will do that globally,” he said.

He explained why this matters: “Because it was done by an African institution. It changes perceptions. It shows leadership and innovation. And adds to the positive news narrative coming out of Africa”. He further bolstered his point by mentioning other accolades the bank has received, showcasing Africa’s positive development efforts.

“Two years ago, Global Finance ranked the African Development Bank as the best multilateral development bank in the world. It was also ranked as the most transparent financial institution in the world by Publish What You Pay (PWPY). Even the African Development Fund, the bank’s concessional financing arm, “was ranked by the Washington-based Center for Global Development as the second best in the world, above all 49 concessional financing institutions in all OECD countries,” he said. “These and other positive developments are not the kind of news Africa is known for”

However, Dr. Adesina criticizes the lack of reporting on these positive developments. “The question is, how many news organizations know of or reported this?”. He argues that positive news from Africa is often overshadowed by negativity. “The news of Africa, either from within or shared from outside, is often full of stereotypes, negativity, and old and tired jokes, misconceptions, or greatly entrenched biases”.

A 2021 survey by Africa No Filter Report on ‘How African Media Covers Africa’ found that while over 80% indicated that African news is important to them, 50% accepted that their news and articles on Africa conformed to stereotypes. It further showed that 37% of surveyed editors indicated a lack of interest in advertisers on African news. This focus on negativity, he argues, discourages advertiser interest.

But they should have an interest in Africa!

“Despite the negative media narrative, Africa’s economy is showing resilience. Africa’s growth rate in 2022 was 3.2%, exceeding the global average. Eleven of the world’s 20 fastest-growing economies are in Africa,” he added.

Dr. Adesina also addressed the issue of young Africans leaving the continent because of a “lack of opportunity, not because they want to.” He argues that Africa needs to develop its economy to create a better future for its youth. A key part of this is changing the narrative about Africa. The negative media portrayal discourages investment and makes it more expensive for African countries to borrow money. Dr. Adesina says that Africa must develop “with pride.”

“African news, except negative, is not prioritized. How can positive news on Africa compare to the preponderance of reports on crime conflicts, crises, and challenges? Africa No Filter Report calls this “if it bleeds, it leads.” Others in the business cynically say, “If it doesn’t smell it doesn’t sell.”

Negative media portrayal hurts Africa

“Africa gets a bad rap for being risky,” Dr. Adesina said, “but is that perception reality?” He emphasized, “Perception is not reality, perception is not reality.”

Dr. Adesina pointed to a revealing statistic. “A 14-year survey by Moody’s analysis showed that the default rate on infrastructure projects in Africa was only 1.9%,” he said. In contrast, he continued, “default rates were significantly higher in North America (6.6%), Latin America (10%), and even East Asia (12%).” “So, is Africa the risky one?” Dr. Adesina questioned.

Yet look at the yields on bonds issued by African countries and countries in Latin America: for the same credit rating of similar BB-rated countries in the two regions, the one in Africa pays 1.1% interest rate higher than those in Latin America.

“Look at the ease of borrowing for African countries compared to Latin America,” he urged. “For countries with the same credit rating, African nations pay significantly higher interest rates,” he explained. “An African country with a BB rating pays 1.1% more interest than a similar rated country in Latin America,” Dr. Adesina said, citing specific figures. This translates to a hefty price tag, according to Dr. Adesina. “This year alone, Africa will pay an extra $74 billion in loan service payments compared to 2010,” he said.

Dr. Adesina then presented a solution to reduce these unfair costs. “The United Nations Development Program found that greater transparency in credit rating could save African countries a whopping $75 billion in interest payments,” he revealed.

“So, this year, Africa will pay $74 billion in loan service payments, a rise from $17 billion in 2010. The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) found that if African countries were transparently and fairly treated in ratings by credit risk agencies, they would save at least $75 billion in interest payments.”

“Do you see the high cost of bias?” he asked.

The rise of misinformation is a threat

Dr. Adesina then shifted his focus to the growing problem of misinformation.

“As media business models radically shift away from conventional advertisement and subscription-driven models, the potential for even more negative and stereotypical biases will increase. The dominance of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter (now “X”), and YouTube; the rise of bots, trolls, and the use of artificial intelligence to shape and influence content, challenges the notions of media independence, transparency, and editorial control. While the fragmentation of the media ecosystem has expanded space for self-expression, it has also created a new slew of problems, including foreign interference in shaping the African narrative.”

“There’s a flood of misinformation about Africa, and it’s getting worse,” he lamented. He attributed this to the rise of social media and the decline of traditional media outlets. “As business models change and rely less on advertising, the potential for negativity and stereotypes will only increase,” Dr. Adesina warned.

“The growth of bots, trolls, and the use of what some might call ‘African intelligence’ to manipulate social media content threaten media independence, transparency, and editorial control,” he explained.

“While the fragmentation of the media landscape has created more space for people to express themselves, which is a good thing,” Dr. Adesina continued, “it’s also become a breeding ground for problems like foreign interference in shaping the narrative about Africa.”

He cited a recent study to support his point. “A March 2024 report by the Africa Center for Strategic Studies titled ‘Mapping a Sword of Disinformation in Africa’ found that disinformation campaigns targeting African information systems have nearly quadrupled since 2020,” he said. “This is having destabilizing and anti-democratic consequences.”

Dr. Adesina explained the negative impacts of disinformation. “The rise of disinformation is fueling efforts to manipulate political discourse within governments, sow distrust between citizens and their leaders, and exacerbate ethnic, religious, and economic divisions,” he said. “This ultimately undermines the stability of African countries.”

The critical role of African media

Adesina argues that African media is often overshadowed by foreign outlets, which can perpetuate negative stereotypes. He proposes creating a well-funded, independent African media organization to counter this bias and project a more accurate image of the continent.

According to a survey by Africa NoFilter, foreign media houses do not devote adequate time and resources to building networks of correspondents on the ground level, relying instead on Western agencies. This biased reporting often overlooks progress and improvement in Africa, with the bulk of stories reported from a Western perspective.

“African media has a critically important role by being fair, objective, inquisitive, investigating, yes, but also by being a catalyst for development and promoting positive news about Africa’s accomplishments and achievements.” He added, “Unfortunately, due to a lack of resources and opportunities, African journalists walk in as correspondents for foreign news organizations, many times for the repositories that feed the stereotypes that are against the world.”

“To address these challenges,” he said. “I would therefore like to propose that the African Development Bank, Africa Import-Export Bank, and all regional financial institutions pull resources to support the emergence of a globally respected African media company that will position the news of Africa to the world.”

“Africa must shape its own narrative, and not depend on what others think about it or the perspectives they prefer to share about it, its achievements, and opportunities.

Third, the development institutions in Africa should set up a joint repository of verified and standardized stories, videos, and content that will make it easier to aggregate and write stories on what’s being achieved in Africa. This will lower the search costs of news houses for stories on what is working in Africa.

Fourth, to recognize and profile African journalists, correspondents, and media houses that promote Africa with unbiased stories, the African Development Bank will work with the All Africa Media and African corporates to establish the Annual Africa Media Prize.”

Fifth, the African Development Bank, working with partners and the African corporates will also help establish the African Journalists’ and Correspondents’ Fellowships to help build and strengthen the capacities of journalists and correspondents working on Africa.”

“As the renowned Africanist writer Chinua Achebe wrote “Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter,” he said. “Now is the time for Africans to tell their own stories and shape the narrative of the continent,”

“But the stories of us, as Africans, written by Africans, about Africa, and confidently projected to the world,” he concluded.

By Melody Chironda

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