This morning over breakfast I was reading commentary on TED Global 2007 and development in Africa, while my wife was reading a Guardian Weekly article about Nicholas Negroponte's reaction to Intel's Classmate computer. An interesting overlap emerged.
First, the TED Global 2007 commentary exposed the extent to which the west, i.e. the US and EU, treat Africa as a disaster area to be "aided." That's a very different from say, the Chinese, who are going to Africa to do business. Although not part of the TED blogs, Howard French says it best as he summarizes a flight between Africa and Beijing, full of Chinese businessmen, and then recalls similar flights between the US and Africa:
...the passengers one finds aboard the few existing flights linking the United States to Africa make for an interesting comparison with my Chinese fellow travelers. Yes, there is a smattering of business people and of tourists. But the Americans who travel to Africa tend to be aid workers of one kind or another: officials of the U.S. government and of the international financial institutions, like the World Bank, and the army of well-paid consultants and contractors that they deploy. They are also relief workers and missionaries and Peace Corps volunteers, and academics doing research.
There is much to be gleaned from the contrast here. Chinese people today look at Africa and see opportunity, promise and a fertile field upon which their energies, mercantile and otherwise, can be given full play. Too often, the West looks at Africa and sees a problematic pupil, a sickly patient, and a zone of pestilence, where failure looms in the air like a curse.
As I was reading this, my wife commented on the Guardian article (essentially the same content as this BBC article), surprised that Nicholas Negroponte was upset when Intel introduced its own low cost computer for the developing world, in competition with the One Laptop per Child initiative. Surely competing computers can only be good for children in developing countries?? But apparently Intel is bucking the "father knows best," we have to give them aid, approach still prevalent in much of the west.
I don't have a lot of Africa experience, but NMS Communications does business in Africa, selling AccessGate RAN backhaul optimizers for rural cellsites and MyCaller ringback tone systems for personalization services in rapid growth markets as diverse as South Africa and Nigeria.
There is plenty of business going on in Africa. And ultimately, it's Africans doing business that will solve the problems that decades of aid have failed to solve. Hopefully more western companies will join the Chinese in doing business with, and fostering business in, Africa (and other parts of the developing world).