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Good News from Africa

By Timothy Longman

The nongovernmental organization Invisible Children recently gained extraordinary attention with Kony 2012, a viral video watched by over 70 million people in less than a week. The video seeks to raise awareness about the International Criminal Court's most-wanted war fugitive, Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord's Resistance Army, a Ugandan rebel group notorious for its kidnapping of children and brutal terrorization of civilians. With skillful filmmaking and savvy use of social media, the video calls on young people to take action to help bring justice to Kony.

By raising knowledge about a character of whom most people were previously unaware, the video provides a service. Yet much of its appeal comes from a troubling depiction of Africans as hopeless and helpless, desperately waiting for outsiders to come save them. Like many Western approaches to Africa, Kony 2012 plays on old stereotypes that treat Africans as either uncontrollable savages or passive victims and ignores the numerous positive changes that have taken place on the continent in the past several decades.

In fact, while parts of Africa still struggle with civil war, authoritarian government, and severe poverty, developments in much of the continent give cause for optimism. While in 1990, the number of functioning African democracies could be counted on one hand, the respect for civil and political rights has expanded markedly. Fully half of the continent's states today are recognized as democratic. Countries such as Benin, Ghana, and Zambia now regularly see power shift from one political party to another. South Africa's constitution is recognized as the world's most progressive, the first to include rights for gays and lesbians and the handicapped, as well as reproductive rights, and respect for human rights has expanded almost everywhere on the continent.

Extraordinary advances have been made in women's empowerment. In eight African countries, women make up more than 30 percent of the parliament. (For comparison, women constitute 16.8 percent of the U.S. House of Representatives). In 2008, Rwanda became the first country in the world to have a majority of women in its parliament. Several countries have had women prime ministers, and last year Ellen Sirleaf Johnson won a second term as president of Liberia.

Many of the most positive developments have been in the economy. While much of Africa remains poor, the growth rates in Africa are among the most impressive. Last year, 39 of Africa's countries enjoyed growth rates higher than the world average, and all but two had growth rates higher than the United States. Ghana had the second-highest GDP growth rate in the world, at 13.5 percent.

In the area of security, Africa has made major advances as well. Long-running civil wars have been resolved in Angola, Mozambique, Burundi, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Liberia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, and Ethiopia. Though the Kony 2012 video glosses over the fact, the war in Northern Uganda ended six years ago. Violence continues to flare up in parts of the continent, but Africans are increasingly finding non-violent ways to gain government influence.

The final development that portrayals like Kony 2012 fail to acknowledge is the myriad ways that Africans have worked to solve their own problems. Far from passively waiting for Westerners to come save them, Africans are increasingly taking action to empower themselves. Even in repressive regimes, human rights groups and journalists continue to courageously challenge injustice. In many places that have experienced conflict, including Northern Uganda, the people themselves have worked to end violence and rebuild their communities.

While raising awareness of the challenges that Africa still faces can be a positive thing, the greatest contribution that Americans could make to improving conditions in Africa would be to address our own culpability. The United States is the largest arms exporter in the world, providing the weapons that fuel many of Africa's conflicts. Multinational corporations often benefit from insecurity in Africa because it allows them to ignore labor and environmental regulations and to avoid taxes. While Africa is rich in natural resources, the prices paid for Africa's raw products allow us to live well while Africans suffer. While Joseph Kony is a monster who certainly should be brought to justice, all of us with computers and cellphones that contain conflict minerals also bear some responsibility for the suffering that still goes on in some corners of Africa.

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