Africa is not a country

28 January 2014

There are 54 states on the continent, yet the media insists on referring to it as one place. A new app identifies the culprits.

Many public figures and journalists have no problem describing someone from Botswana and a person from Mauritania as "Africans". They probably wouldn't call them "Americans" if they were from Brazil and the United States, even though the distance between the two is the same - and the economic conditions as different.

You don't have a film called Out of Asia and you rarely go to Oceania on holidays (instead you talk of vacations in Australia, New Zealand or another island). Yet for a continent of one billion people three times the size of the US, it's no problem to call it by one single name - "Africa"! This is hugely detrimental to many countries. When a civil war starts in the Central African Republic (Africa!), it negatively impacts countries as far away as Senegal (Africa!) and Lesotho (Africa!). This has to change.

What can be measured can be changed. By measuring how many articles talk of "Africa" wit hout mentioning a specific country, we show in the app Africa Isn't A Country how widespread the prejudice against the continent actually is. And we give journalists a tool to measure their progress towards more sensible reporting.

Because "Europe" is used to describe the European Union and "America" is used as a synonym for the United States, the coverage of Africa can only be compared with that of Asia. See how the Guardian, for instance, uses "Africa" as an all-purpose word to describe anything from Tangiers to Cape Town. Comparing the mentions of the three biggest African economies with the three biggest Asian ones, we see how much less precise reporting of African countries remains:
Guardian journalist don't use "Asia" when talking of Hyderabad or Shenzhen. They use "India" and "China". But for Africa:
The methodology vastly understates the problem.

If a piece talks at length of "African" leaders discussing "African" issues in "Tunisia", it will not appear in the statistics above.

More interestingly, the sections suffering from this syndrome are not culture, fashion and travel, as one could think. Looking at the seven sections that contain more than half of all the articles mentioning only Africa, the ones most prone to treating Africa as a country are world news, Comment is free and Global development.

Most of the time, journalists are not to blame. The tweet from Bill Clinton, above, is as meaningless as announcing that he landed between Calgary and Buenos Aires. As a head of state, he must have noticed that Obasanjo and Mandela did not rule the same country, though. More recently, the German defence minister explained that "the situation in Africa is serious". I hope that she sends the Bundeswehr to more precise locations.
The blame does not fall entirely on celebrities and politicians. Guardianistas produced some surprising pieces, notably one that informs us that Africa can feed itself. There, the name of the continent is mentioned 13 times but the reader will not know that South Africa, for instance, is a net food exporter (like 18 other African countries).

Original article by Nicolas Kayser-Bril

Categories: General

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