Part of the raison d’entre for public diplomats is the creation and distribution of memes. Most of us know memes as the cat pictures with big bold text on them discussing their need for cheeseburgers. But the pre-internet definition of a meme went like this:
an element of a culture or system of behavior that may be considered to bepassed from one individual to another by nongenetic means, esp.imitation.
This is a critical piece of the public diplomats’ toolkit because their tasks are to disseminate ideas and values that represent their nations, employers, or clients. This is not an easy task, and it is made all the more difficult by the difficulty of measuring the success or failure of memes. How well do people associate Nike with great athletics? How well do people in Africa associate democracy and civil rights with the United States? Does China’s articulation of a ‘peaceful rise’ achieve the geo-strategic goals in their foreign policy?
These answers are a bit ephemeral because of the shifting perceptions, and are often only analyzed in retrospect, or when the public can subconsciously agree as a ‘whole’ that a certain meme is associated with a certain brand, country, or person.
Recently, there have been many newspapers (The Economist), magazines (Time), and writers who have hailed the ‘Rise of Africa’ in the past decade. These analyses often look at the massive growth rates in GDP that African countries have sustained and they see hope for the future, especially when contrasted with the stagnant or non-existent growth in North American or Europe. This meme has been credited with increasing the focus on Sub-Saharan Africa both in the business community as well within the foreign policy community.
This ‘Africa Rising’ theme was challenged in a recent Foreign Policy article (The Myth of Africa’s Rise), that has stayed in FP’s Most Popular list for over a week after its publication (it is currently ranked 6th). I’ve had it bred into me at USC to always research the author of any piece I read, and that habit revealed an interesting piece of info: it’s written by an author (Rick Rowden) who it appears has rejected the Washington Consensus on economic development (see his book on the Deadly Ideas of Neoliberalism) but is not an economist, not an Africanist, not a political scientist, and not a public diplomat, which may account for the frame of his thesis:
The measures of development (GDP, consumption, and trade) are wrong.
It is a claim that goes against 50 years of development work, and may in fact be a needed critique to development studies. However, Rowden doesn’t go down the path of most who attack GDP and other monetary based measures do. He could have explored the Better Life Index, the Green GDP, or simply argued that GDP and its like can’t possibly ascertain Africa’s geo-political position and whether the continent has grown more powerful in international relations. No, Rowden instead says that industrialization is the primary way to measure growth. And his rationale? Because all the other countries who grew first (the West),first industrialized in their development stages. This cross temporal comparison is shocking, because it basically makes the argument that there is only one way to growth a national economy! Which contradicts his argument against the use of neo-liberal economic markers (GDP per capita, consumption, and trade) to measure growth!
For the sake of Rowden, let’s take his rhetorial frame as not so ludercrious, and operationalize his ideas about growth.
Rowden says that manufacturing is critical in a rising economy because it will provide jobs for those rural migrants who are moving off the (less productive) farms and into the cities. Here he’s basically laying out China’s development model and assuming Africa is going to play out similarly. Let’s put that issue of cross ‘national’ comparison to the side, and look at why his emphasis on manufacturing may be misplaced.
Rowden seems perturped that industrialization has been removed as a link to development in recent years. I wonder if the de-linkage has to do with the import substitition industrialization plans that were implemented after liberation in many African colonies that wrecked national economies, sent the countries into spiraling debts, required bailouts from the IMF and World Bank who then imposed Structural Adjustment Programs that destroyed social services and the agricultural sector, which led to a decade of lost growth (1990s) despite the rapid democratization of the continent. Could that be why industrialization is no longer priority number 1 on the continent?
Here’s Rowden counter:
Use infant industry protections, subsidize credit, and invest in R&D. His example to back up this claim: The United Kingdom, circa 1600AD. Oh, and all the bad things that happened when these policies were implemented before: they were sequenced ‘wrong’, used ‘wrong’, or driven by political considerations. Yet he doesn’t present a way of ‘correctly’ sequencing or using these policies and apparently assumes that political considerations of economic policies isn’t important that much any more. This should all be done instead of allowing the economy to be dominated by extractive industries.
To rebut his first counter point, I would respond with the argument, which is not original, that African economies must produce and manufacture where they have a comparative advantange to the rest of the world. Currently, that’s in the agricultural sector for many poor African countries. Some countries might even have an absolute advantage if there weren’t farm subsidies in North America and Europe, but regardless, African manufacturing is not going to beat out Asia for jobs or supply. Perhaps when Asia transitions to their next economic phase of development we’ll see manufacturing jobs move to the African continent, but whey wait for that? Why not build a high-tech industry that focuses on the socio-economic needs of the continents citizens, or green energy developments, or invest in science and maths so that whatever the next innovation spurs the next worldwide growth spurt, Africans are just as capable of anyone else to participate in the globalized economy. This won’t soak up the labor moving into urban centers, so it’s not a complete solution.
My second critique is that the exploitation of natural resources is not necessarily a bad economic policy if managed correctly. Following decolonization, African countries relied on their strong agricultural sectors to produce foreign exchange reserves that were then used to buy materials for industrialization. Unfortunately, through the devaluing of their currency in order to speed up the process, most African countries bankrupted their agricultural sectors and could not manufacture products that were of high enough quality or low enough price to be sold on the world market. Thus, natural resources provide a more effective way to build up foreign currency reserves that can then be strategically invested into industries that government and civil society believe will be most productive down the road. If this sounds unreasonable, I would direct you to understand Botswana’s development plan and its resounding success.
Rowden’s focus on manufacturing is backwards looking and does not set the continent up for success. If any lessons can be drawn from the continent, it is that the economic policies and prescriptions of outsiders are not guaranteed to be any better than the national corrupt politicians. Thus, committing to long term policies that will make an economy adaptable and quick learning will serve developing countries best.
On the topic of the ‘Africa Rising’ meme, after his prescriptions for ISI, Rowden’s critique on the meme is unveiled: Western countries are pushing their economic and industrial policies on African states, all while promoting the meme of ‘Africa rising’, in order to not have the give in to the demands of African leaders who wish more policy space.
Rowdens analysis of African rising is thus not an attack on our meme in question per se, but it is part of his continuing critique of neoliberalism and the prescriptions it has for economic development. Rowden seems to view the meme as some insidious plot by Western nations to sustain their policy positions in the face of African opposition. That’s a crass way to look at the narrative in question, and he presents no evidence to sustain his accusation. While convenient for his worldview, to assume that the nations of the West could actively and subversively promote the idea of Africa’s rise to maintain the core principles of the Washington Consensus suggests a level of coordination and execution that is far and above any other foreign policy objective of the past 50 years.
My disappointment with Rowden’s critique is that his perspective is not necessarily wrong: there are other ways to measure growth and the world needs to move away from the reliance on GDP per capita as the benchmark for economic success. However, for a non-economist/non-Africanist to write a piece that paints the argument that because the African continent is not industrializing like the Western world did 200-300 years ago this is then evidence that Africa is not actually rising and the meme of Africa Rising is a plot by supporters of the Washington Consensus, completely undercuts any critique of the measure of economic success he may wish to contribute.
Consequences of a Meme
The perception of Africa Rising may be becoming so strong that even those unfamiliar with the data or the continent may begin to promulgate the idea. This bodes well for changing the stereotype of the continent in the minds of most. However, I believe this meme is still fragile and could be under cut by growing interactions with the continent that may not align with the general meme: violence in Nigeria, Mali, Guinea-Bissau, Kenya, and Somalia all threaten to continue the idea of Africa in Crisis. The politicking of South Africa’s ANC, the corruption of Zimbabwe, Angola, and Guinea, or the growing radicalization of the continent’s Muslim population do not align well with the Africa Rising meme.
A major tenant of good public diplomacy is that the values and ‘truth’ behind a meme must line up with the meme itself or else the hard work spent at promulgating the meme will be quickly undermined by the real truth of the idea. Thus African governments, and civil society organizations, must capitalize on this meme and push for greater reform and regulations that will capture the growing enthusiasm for the continent, while at the same time conducting greater public diplomacy campaigns to increase engagement with foreign communities and diaspora groups. This will allow for a strong foundation of the ‘African Rising’ meme and prevent the wave that so many African nations are currently riding from crashing down.