Lectures on Africa

Stephen DeAngelis

February 5, 2010

Amber Johnson, who works for Online Colleges, a website dedicated to bringing “top-notch news, reviews and hot topics in the college world” to students or individuals considering going back to school, contacted me about a web page they posted last October entitled 100 Open Lectures All About Africa. She thought readers of this blog might find the lectures interesting. The lectures are divided into the following groups:

  • History
  • Politics
  • Business and Development
  • Health Care
  • Education
  • Technology and Innovation
  • Culture
  • Natural World
  • Activism and Aid
  • Miscellaneous

A quick perusal of the list shows that many of the lectures are dated. For example, almost all of the lectures contained in the “Business and Development” section are lectures given at the 2007 TED Conference. Just because they are dated, however, doesn’t mean they aren’t weren’t listening to. Let me sidetrack here. If you haven’t heard about the TED Conference, you should learn more. TED stands for technology, entertainment, and design and the conference was started to give a bully pulpit to “ideas worth spreading.” According to the TED website, “It started out (in 1984) as a conference bringing together people from three worlds: Technology, Entertainment, Design. Since then its scope has become ever broader. Along with the annual TED Conference in Long Beach, California, and the TEDGlobal conference in Oxford UK, TED includes the award-winning TEDTalks video site, the Open Translation Program, the new TEDx community program, this year’s TEDIndia Conference and the annual TED Prize.” My colleague Tom Barnett gave one of the presentations at the 2005 TED conference. The point is, even though the TED lectures may be dated, they contain interesting presentations.

Some of the open lectures (like those from TED conferences) are videos. Other lectures are podcasts. In addition to TED conferences, lectures are drawn from a number of prestigious institutions and organizations. The list includes, among others:

  • Stanford
  • University of California (Berkley)
  • Harvard
  • Princeton
  • UCLA
  • MIT
  • The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS)
  • Peking University
  • The Forum Network (PBS/NPR)
  • The Institute of Advanced Studies (University of Western Australia)
  • Public Radio International
  • Council on Foreign Relations

If you are interested in Africa, then you should find the website a valuable resource. As we all know, however, Africa is not a country and the 100 lectures don’t deal with all of Africa’s 53 countries. Countries specifically mentioned in the lecture titles include: Ethiopia (1), Kenya (2), Niger (1), Nigeria (3), Rwanda (2), Sierra Leone (1), Sudan (2), South Africa (6), Uganda (1), and Zimbabwe (1). That leaves 80 lectures that talk about subjects ranging from A to Z — that is, from “Art, Gender and Politics in Egypt: Queen Hatshepsut” to “Zeresenay Alemseged looks for humanity’s roots.” The TED lectures are generally short (around 20 minutes). I’m not sure how long the others lectures are. Thanks to Amber for providing the website so the rest of us can enjoy watching and listening.

News out of African countries remains mixed. In yesterday’s post, I updated events in Guinea — which have turned surprisingly positive. There is other positive news as well. Last October, The Ibrahim Foundation published its annual Ibrahim Index. The good news from the report is that southern African states are performing better than northern African states (with the exception of Tunisia, who is number 8 out of the Index’s top 10) [“South tops survey of best governed regions,” William Wallis, Financial Times, 6 October 2009]. For more about Mo Ibrahim and his foundation, read my post entitled Leadership and Good Governance in Africa. Wallis reports:

“Southern Africa outperforms north Africa in the delivery of public goods and services, according to an annual survey of governance. The survey – launched three years ago by Mo Ibrahim, a Sudanese billionaire philanthropist – aims to help civil society track government performance in Africa. Its rankings are led by Mauritius, the Seychelles and Cape Verde. Country assessments are based on 84 indicators collated from a range of data provided by institutions and experts and broadly categorised under safety and security; participation and human rights; sustainable economic opportunity; and human development. For the first time the rankings include north African states, which score better on human development but are dragged down overall by a poor record on political freedom and human rights. Southern Africa was on average the best governed region, with South Africa, Botswana, Namibia and Lesotho all making the top 10. Tunisia is the only north African country in the top 10, with Egypt trailing at 11, followed by Algeria at 14, Morocco at 16 and Libya at 23. The worst performing region was central Africa, with west Africa placed third and east Africa fourth. ‘With southern Africa outperforming north Africa, we can see a picture emerging that fundamentally challenges our perceptions about Africa,’ Mr Ibrahim said. Somalia was the worst-governed state, followed by Chad and Zimbabwe. This year’s rankings include new indicators intended to improve accuracy and iron out anomalies. The oil-rich state of Gabon slumps from the top 10 to 21 using the adjusted measures, which have eliminated a perceived bias in previous years towards police states by merging assessments of personal safety with those for the rule of law. Countries including Liberia, Burundi and Angola have seen a marked improvement in political freedoms over past years. However, respect for human rights in Ethiopia has deteriorated sharply. Three countries – Gambia , Mozambique and Eritrea – show meaningful deterioration overall, while Liberia, recovering from civil war, has made progress climbing up from near the bottom.”

Although some people may shrug their shoulders and ask, “Who cares,” they should care. Africa remains a largely untapped source of important and, in some cases, rare minerals that are necessary to keep the global economy sound and growing. Continued instability and unrest in countries containing these minerals could have a serious negative impact in the future [“Big groups fall victim to law of uncertainty,” by William MacNamara, Financial Times, 6 October 2009]. MacNamara writes:

“A resurgence of antagonism between international mining companies and governments of some of Africa’s least developed countries is raising questions about the world’s future supply of industrial metals. Under the jungles of countries such as Guinea … and Congo, struggling to recover from civil war, lie some of the richest unexploited mineral deposits. Yet exploiting those deposits poses problems that scare off most of the companies best able to develop them. Traditional sources of metals – Australia, Chile, South Africa, Russia – still have abundant reserves. But as they are gradually exhausted, many in the industry believe Africa’s volatile mining frontiers will have to take over.”

According to MacNamara, who provides a litany of cases where mining companies and African governments have been at loggerheads, the greatest concern among mining companies is not violence but governance:

“In all these cases investors were worried not so much by evidence of African resource nationalism – a constant over the past decade – or the state’s authority to press legal claims. The most problematic factor was the unpredictable, seemingly capricious application of the law. Under such conditions, it is impossible to be sure that a licence will not be revoked because of the rise of a faction or minister or the death of a leader. Even if it is revoked, it is near impossible to determine how final the edict is.”

That is why indexes, like the Ibrahim Index or the World Bank’s Doing Business Index, are so important. They hold countries to the same standards and let the world know where and when governments fall short. Although MacNamara’s report concerned the mining industry, companies in every economic sector can find themselves subject to the same erratic application of the law. That is why the rule of law is so often stressed by those in the development sector. It is one of the things that I stress when discussing Development-in-a-Box™.

I hate, however, to end on a sour note. As I noted earlier, Africa is not a country; and conditions differ dramatically from country to country on the continent. One sign that things are picking up in some countries in Africa is the fact that large multinational corporations like IBM now see promising business opportunities in some parts of Africa [“IBM Markets Wares to Africa,” by William M. Bulkeley, Wall Street Journal, 24 September 2009]. Bulkeley reports:

“International Business Machines Corp. will try to sell a new package of low-priced computer desktop applications to companies and governments in Africa, challenging Microsoft Corp. and other rivals in the region.IBM, which has been pushing into developing markets like Africa and Asia as mature markets slow, said the package — which includes basic programs like word processing and email — would be made available to customers via remote ‘cloud computing’ facilities, meaning users could access the programs from the Web. It would cost $10 per month per user, and can run on so-called netbook computers, or low-cost PCs priced around $300. … The African market for information technology is relatively small, but unlike Europe and the U.S., it is growing even in the recession. Market researcher IDC predicts it will rise 2.3% this year [2009] to $22.1 billion.”

Getting African nations connected is an important step in bringing the Dark Continent into the light. Although the picture of Africa remains mixed — which is evident in lectures mentioned above as well as the news flowing from there — there does seem to be slow, if grudging, progress made in many countries.