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Stop Fogging Over Africa

A call for more responsible journalism

· Africa

I am incensed with the article on Senegal published in the June 22, 2019 Washington Post edition: “In Senegal, growth at a deadly cost”. I feel embarrassed by it. And I’m not even Senegalese, although I resided in the country for 8 years and consider Senegal my home-away-from-home, both in the city and in rural areas (Diaobé, Tambacounda, Bady, Mereto, and many others). It’s a beautiful, welcoming country, the land of Teranga, rich in history, culture and love of family, and tremendously entrepreneurial. It’s also one of Africa’s little known and spoken-about country on the rise, poised to become a gateway in the West to the rest of the continent.

Senegal may be a small (with 196,722 sq km, 50 times smaller than the U.S.) and little heard of in the U.S., but that doesn’t make it any less a lion among the more visible African elephants. Unfortunately, according to Danielle Paquette’s article, over Senegal hangs the typically “dark” American view of anything African. I’d like to clear the dark fog emanating from her article.

First, the facts and numbers

I’m not a journalist, but I do like to check the facts to get as complete a picture as possible of things or events. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), drowning is among the 10 leading causes of death of children and young people in every region of the world, particularly in low- and middle-income countries. Children less than 5 years old are disproportionately at risk and males twice as likely to drown as females. Interestingly the WHO ranks the African region as the one with the lowest ranking in drownings, for all age groups. For example in the 10-14 year-old range it is 9th, while high income countries (such as the U.S) are ranked third.

 

The U.S. is one of the countries where drowning is one of the 5 leading causes of death. In Senegal, the data does not even meet the WHO’s inclusion criteria for drowning as one of the top five causes of death, even though 91% of deaths by drowning occur in low- and middle-income countries (Senegal is a mixed lower-income – in rural areas - and middle-income level – in urban areas – country).

Regardless of a country’s economic development, drowning often hits the poorest and least-educated people who live in settings especially around or near water and communities with the least resources to safely adapt to the risks around them. Drowning rates are also disproportionately high among minority populations in places where overall drowning rates are low, including in high-income countries. In the U.S. there is an increased risk of drowning of between two and four times for children and young people from racial ethnic minority groups.

In the U.S., drowning is responsible for more deaths among children ages 1-4 than any other cause except for congenital anomalies (birth defects). There’s an average of ten non-boating drowning deaths per day. About 1 in 5 people who drown are children 14 years and younger. Most drownings occur in home swimming pools. According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), 350 children under the age of 5 drown in pools each year nationwide.

Meanwhile, the fatal unintentional drowning rate in the U.S. for African Americans is significantly higher than that of caucasians across all ages. The disparity is widest among children 5-18 years old and most pronounced in swimming pools. African American children drown in swimming pools at rates 5.5 times higher than caucasians of the same age. This disparity is greatest among those 11-12 years old, where African Americans drowning in swimming pools at rates 10 times those of caucasians.

What conclusions can we draw from the above statistics? For one, most drownings do not occur in the context of a planned swim. Young lives in Senegal are lost at the beach; in the U.S. they are lost at the beach, in the pool, even in a backyard wading pool. Second, in both the U.S. and Senegal, summer seems to bring a rash of tragedies. Given that every year summers seem a little hotter in Senegal and are heating up faster than the other seasons in parts of the Northern Hemisphere, it seems climate change could be a logical trigger for playing at the beach (and/or the pool in the U.S.) rather than being a direct consequence of a building boom. But, like Darrel Huff wrote in 1954, in his renowned book entitled How to Lie With Statistics, there is terror in numbers. Nowhere does this terror translate into more blind and overinflated use of statistics than when writing about Africa, in order to sensationalize, inflate, confuse and oversimplify ... in a negative light.

Correlation does not imply causation!

Yes, of course, growth has its down side. And yes, building booms tend to shrink play spaces for children …. and open up other spaces and opportunities. Yes, it’s extremely sad that some Senegalese youths have drowned when they sneaked out to the beach. Growth is no excuse for death. Thankfully, Senegalese authorities are taking the right steps towards ensuring greater safety on the beaches. However, the increase in deaths by drowning is not a direct consequence of construction in Dakar or anywhere else in Senegal.

The growth-deadly cost headline is a dangerously false syllogism. The typical Dakar neighborhood may seem, to the typical American, “cramped” and “suffocating to children” (although I can assure you it is a very pleasant city, with some neighborhoods better than others, like in any big city). But I challenge Ms. Paquette to visit any low-income neighborhood in any major U.S. city.

Chicago or New York or Washington D.C. have proven to be deadly. In Dakar you don’t have drive-by shootings that kill children playing in the street (not particularly safe havens). And you don’t have children exposed daily to crack dealers or gang violence. And I’ll just mention in passing how the U.S. government is holding immigrant children in detention facilities that are dirty, neglectful an dangerous (The New Yorker 06/22/19).

As you read this, you may be gritting your teeth and thinking “Oh, come on!”. No, you come on. It is no secret that a majority of the American press coverage of Africa is biased and does not fulfill its responsibility for providing consistently balanced and accurate reporting. Just because Africa is an important market for U.S. products and the U.S. needs African friends in international agencies does not give the media the right to be overbearing and obnoxious by consistently dumping negative news materials and information when reporting.

I am not saying that there isn’t conflict and human suffering on the continent as a whole, or in Senegal specifically. But the job of a journalist is to pursue worthwhile stories objectively, not sensationalist ones that are easily based on stereotypes or pander to vested interests. Could Ms. Paquette's article be an indirect swipe at Senegal’s strengthening relations with China and the Chinese construction companies that are setting up in and around Dakar, particularly CGC Overseas Construction, which is building the Diamniadio project, intended to ease the urbanization pressure on Dakar? Just a thought. Regardless, the consequences of this kind of skewed or incomplete reporting are not just a disservice to readers but also have the potential to influence policy. It is also demoralizing for so many Africans working for positive change and progress.

Senegal has a model growth track

Senegal’s focused, measured and paced path to growth began when President Macky Sall was democratically elected to a first term in 2012, over the kleptocratic Abdoulaye Wade. It continues with his re-election in the first voting round in February 2019.

The Emerging Senegal Plan, adopted in 2014, defined a new development model for the country. It was designed to help Senegal exit a trap of low growth and high poverty by unlocking broad-based and inclusive growth opportunities. The Plan serves as a reference framework for the country’s economic and social policy over the mid- and long-term and is intended to speed the country’s march towards emergence by making Senegal a regional hub.

Like anywhere else, not everything is rosy, of course. Senegal is one of the four countries that have relapsed into greater poverty, mainly due to climate change. Recurring floods and droughts have increased in magnitude and extent and have resulted in greater food insecurity and malnutrition. There is a need to strengthen the land tenure regime and align the education system to the future needs of the workplace.

The recent elimination of the government position of Prime Minister also has many worried, despite Sall’s assurances that it is merely an institutional reform and not a regime change designed to facilitate government action in pursuit of its development agenda. Naturally, the opposition is worried that it is a move by Sall to consolidate his grip on power and perhaps move towards a more American-style presidential system. There are also accusations of nepotism and elite capture of the new oil and gas sector.

All these are certainly worrisome. But they somehow seem much more benign than America’s fall through a rabbit hole to Trumpian wanderland. Compared to the problems assailing the Trump administration since it came into power, nothing in Senegal is as serious as the deep dysfunctionality that today characterizes U.S. leadership, politics and policy.

In terms of economic performance, Senegal's has remained strong in 2018, with estimated real GDP growth of 7.0%, almost double that of the U.S, which in 2018 was 3.1%. Senegal’s performance was driven by agriculture and related activities, as well as secondary sectors (mining subsectors, agrofood, and construction), and a strong retail sector. The country’s total external debt–to-GDP ratio was down from 64.2% in 2017 to 62.9% in 2018, and the risk of debt overhang remains low.

All in all, under the Senegal Emergence Plan, Senegal’s growth momentum recorded since 2015 is expected to continue in 2019 and 2020, as public investment and reforms have continued: improved business environment and competitiveness, increased energy production and a 10% decrease in the price of electricity, and the operationalization of economic zones and industrial projects and subsequent provision of facilities that are up to international standards.

What we see depends mainly on what we look for … or try to hide.

Journalists like Ms. Paquette urgently need to stop hiding the real Africa and portraying African countries as “shitholes”. As Virgil Hawkins rightly points out in his article “’Shithole’ Countries? The Media’s Portrayal of Africa Reconsidered”, American journalists need to educate themselves on how to find and interpret data available from independent sources. They need to actively seek out stories that deviate from existing story lines on “poverty porn” and uncover the real Africa rising.

It’s high time the American mainstream media took a hard look at its role in creating and perpetuating a horribly simplistic and stereotypical portrayal of Africa. The type of news reporting exemplified by Ms. Paquette’s article ignores a whole host of issues associated with Senegal’s problems, not least their causes. The selective focus on the negative aspects of growth in the absence of its positive aspects fails to highlight the endeavors and innovations made by the Senegalese people and their resilience in overcoming the challenges they face.

Thankfully, the African news media does not reciprocate this kind of unacceptable reporting. I certainly haven’t seen any articles in the Senegalese press publish a cover story, or even include an article, on how Amazon’s massive expansion into Crystal City in Northern Virginia will be effected at a cost to current residents. As the Washington Post itself reported, the influx of highly paid workers and their families will negatively impact low-income residents and business owners with increased rents and leases, commuters with increased traffic congestion and air and noise pollution, smaller tech companies with higher labor costs and a shrinking labor pool as their workers are poached by the behemoth tech giant (Washington Post, 11/14/18). But the Post didn’t bother to look into the deleterious effects of Amazon’s invasion on children’s safe havens and the need to increase the number of beat cops and firefighters, school security personnel and school crossing guards.

In all fairness, the U.S. seems to suffer deadlier costs of growth than Senegal does: an increasing racially-motivated income and wealth gaps that deepen already existing poverty levels (Washington Post, 3/17/19), an increasing number of children scarred by mass school shootings (187,000 since Columbine in 1999), increasing college hunger (Washington Post 1/10/19), increasing affordable housing crisis, increased maternal mortality rate (the U.S. has the worst rates of maternal deaths in the developed world (Washington Post 3/15/18). Need I continue the list of the costs of growth implosion in the U.S.?

What’s more, contrary to Senegal’s, U.S. policymakers disdain rural people and prefer to ignore their plight. Some rural communities in the U.S. struggle to provide their residents with clean drinking water (Lovely Kentucky, Washington Post 4/17/19) or protect their homesteads from a pipeline that would raise electricity bills over the next 20 years (Lyndhurst, Virginia, Washington Post 11/4/18) or try to prevent the destructive consequences of abusive growth (Purcelleville, Viriginia, Washington Post 1/8/18). Instead, legislators have decided to shift the burden of investing in employment training, child care and education on the poor and impose stricter limits and increasing work requirements for those (many families with children) seeking assistance because they are unemployed or have poverty wages that force them to depend on struggling food pantries to feed their children (Washington Post 11/4/18).

While shifting that burden, those same legislators in Virginia, for example, are pushing for casinos

to “boost” tourism and provide new (i.e. low-paying) jobs to economically struggling rural communities (Washington Post 2/17/19). Meanwhile, affluent and upper-middle class parents hover over their children like helicopters, neglecting to raise self-reliant citizens. Their over-protectiveness is generating children with anxiety and neediness and robbing them of a sense of confidence, trust, balance and resilience (Washington Post 4/26/18).

Willful ignorance has consequences

Indeed, ignorance has consequences (Washington Post 4/2/19). Paraphrasing Michael Gerson, empirically groundless and logically fallacious and so stridently tendentious articles as Danielle Paquette’s on Senegal’s “deadly cost” of growth seems less a dark parody than a masked disdain and authentic and alarming ignorance of a country she is responsible for reporting on objectively in a major U.S. newspaper. How about showing some respect for Senegal, her host country, and reporting fairly?

Contrary to the U.S. government, which is mired in incoherence, dilly-dallying, a key personnel vacuum and a White House circus that is demolishing America’s good standing in the world (Washington Post, 4/30/18), the Senegalese government is focused on preparing for the future by supporting measured growth. Senegalese political leaders prefer action to procrastination. They prefer creating an agenda that focuses on governing not vilifying. In fact, Senegal would be a good point of reference for Senator Gary Peters (D-Michigan), who wants to create an agency of industrial programs.

Senegal’s Emergence Plan, now in its second edition, provides a good example and model for how to define and implement a strategic vision for development through coordinated policies. Macky Sall has his weaknesses and failings, like any other government leader. But one thing is for sure: he is a transformational African leader that Donald Trump could take some lessons from. Macky Sall leads to transform, not disrupt, by encouraging, inspiring and motivating the members of his administration and the citizens of his country to innovate and create change, not transact with rewards and punishments, to help grow and shape the future success of the nation.

Paraphrasing Muriel Barbery, a French novelist and philosophy teacher, if American journalists don’t make the effort to look beyond their assumptions and, what’s worse, if they give up trying to meet others on equal ground, then all they do is meet themselves and their limited and biased world view. While the Senegalese government is training firefighters on water rescue and has even recently inaugurated a children’s safe play area at its new Blaise Diagne airport, the U.S. government is ignoring the unintended consequences of growth and demolishing America.

Senegalese children in Dakar may not be able to play with light at Waterfront Park in Alexandria, Virginia. But they can certainly imagine a better future.

Astrid Ruiz Thierry, Principal, Upboost LLC

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