IAN H. SOLOMON is CEO of SolomonGlobal. He served as U.S. Executive Director for the World Bank Group from 2010 to 2013 and Vice President for Global Engagement at the University of Chicago from 2013 to 2016.
In his memoir, The Lion Awakes, Ashish Thakkar describes how, as a young entrepreneur selling computer parts across Africa in the 1990s, he noticed that flights within the continent seemed to take longer than the distances on a map would suggest. “Were the planes slower?” he wondered. In fact, he learned, the commonly used Mercator projection vastly understates the size of Africa, and its 54 countries, relative to other continents. You wouldn’t know it from most maps, but the continent is large enough to fit China, India, Mexico, the United States, and western Europe within its borders—with room to spare.
The distortion of Africa goes beyond cartography; Western journalists and academics have a history of misinterpreting and misrepresenting the region. Failing to account for the size, diversity, and dynamism of the continent—and relying on incomplete and inaccurate data—they have fashioned easy-to-comprehend yet warped and incomplete stories. In past decades, the main story line tended to be one of failure, focused on conflict, disease, corruption, victimhood, and poverty. A headline on the cover of The Economist in 2000 captured the gloom: “The hopeless continent.” By 2011, however, the magazine touted an “Africa rising.” But such simplistic optimism does not capture the full story, either. With more than one billion people, over 2,000 languages, and some of the fastest rates of national GDP growth in this century, the real Africa has always been more complicated.
Challenging as it is to properly capture the complexities and contradictions of a region as large, diverse, and dynamic as Africa, three recent books seek to replace the caricatures of Africa’s economic performance with more accurate pictures. Morten Jerven picks apart the flawed analyses of mainstream economists, Thakkar recounts his two decades of personal experience as an entrepreneur, and Jake Bright and Aubrey Hruby tally the risks and benefits of doing business on the continent. Taken together, these books provide a valuable corrective to the fraying narrative of failure. The Africa
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