Africa. Business opportunity or deserving of help?

One theme from last week’s time in Cape Town was the issue of ‘Aid’ versus ‘Trade’ or as Ann Grant* put it: ‘Should the countries of Africa be presented as a business opportunity or as deserving of help?’.

This has always touched a raw nerve with me as I often feel uneasy about presenting negative facts about Africa, specifically the unacceptably high child mortality rates on the continent, even though I move quickly on to present the ColaLife idea which is positive and potentially part of the solution.

So what is the right approach? Should those of us seeking solutions to injustices, such high child mortality, tone down our message so as not to give quite such a negative impression? Well, I’ve spent a few more hours with this bouncing around in my head and have come to the following conclusion.

Every continent, Europe and America included, has positive and negative aspects to them. If you look my own country within Europe (England) we have lots of positive things happening and the place is full of opportunity – for some. However, we also have lots of ‘issues’, injustices, if you like. For example, we have high unemployment especially among young people, there is still inequality between men and women. There is child abuse and domestic violence. I could go on.

So what do we do to balance these messages, these images coming out of England? Of course the answer is ‘nothing’. There are highly respected people who dedicate their lives to drawing our attention to the injustices in England but these are balanced by those, equally respected individuals, who present England as a land of opportunity. The balance comes from the mixture of these messages and people create for themselves the image of England they think is correct.

My conclusion is that┬áthose of us seeking solutions to injustices, should be careful and base our arguments on facts (obviously) but we should definitely NOT tone down our message. The right balance between ‘opportunity’ and ‘deserving of help’ will come from people comparing the messages they receive and making their own judgement from their own perspective. Business people will tend to see opportunity where social justice campaigners will tend to see a need for help. If we want to see the countries of Africa in a more positive light then the voices of those describing the opportunities need to get louder. It is not up to those highlighting needs to feel obliged to brush those needs under the carpet.

* Ann Grant used to be the British High Commissioner to South Africa and is now Vice Chairman for Standard Chartered Capital Markets Ltd