In its fall issue, the Yale Economic Review, a student magazine on campus, ran a cover story titled “Africa: The Last Frontier,” an economic survey of the benefits of investing in the African continent. The designation of Africa as “the last frontier” ignores centuries of history and perpetuates the idea that the Western gaze is the only thing that can validate a whole continent’s existence. What may have begun as an enlightening piece about investment on a continent often forgotten by investors has disappointingly re-enforced the patronizing, neo-imperialist clichés too often invoked in discussions of Africa.
First off, there seems to be some confusion about what region of the world, exactly, is the focus of this article: Is it the continent of Africa, as suggested by the headline? Or is it just sub-Saharan Africa, from the subtitle (Why Sub-Saharan Africa is the New Investment Hotspot)? Perhaps it’s West Africa, as the editor-in-chief suggests in his introduction to the fall issue. The cover shows the beaded anklet and dark foot of a Maasai — so maybe the locus is Kenya (which, for the record, is in East Africa)? The photo accompanying the feature was of grassland, zebras, sun and more grass. The connection between the grazing zebras and foreign investment in Africa is tenuous at best. Why not show an image of a city or town, wherein there are human people? Are the zebras buying things?
This piece is not about Africans or local economies. There is no mention of any African individuals or their contributions to the global economy. Corruption, economic underdevelopment and the lack or high cost of infrastructure are not listed as concerns because of how they affect African citizens, but because they make it a “nightmare for individuals and corporations looking to generate high returns on investments.” More than anything, I find it disheartening to see that this exploitative mindset is being presented as a legitimate way to interact with the world.
The countries leading this renewed investment in Africa are “not Western countries with a history of providing aid and development,” the article states, but Asian nations, particularly China. Here I am struck by the word “history.” How far back does this history of aid and development stretch, and how do those few decades of humanitarian aid compare with the centuries of exploitation that these same Western countries inflicted on Africa? This article identifies the 1970s as the time when the potential investing value, and “uncertainty,” of Africa first emerged. This decade was, not coincidently, the one that followed the independence of most African countries from Britain, France, Belgium and Portugal in the 1950s and 60s — and yet, this continent can be reduced to “a region just entering the globalized world.” Africa’s unpalatability to investors could thus be attributed to the reluctance of imperial, Western powers to invest in lands and people they used to dominate. Much of the continent’s political troubles today can be traced to this bitter transition into nationhood. Asian investment in Africa does not diminish the implicit neo-imperialism.
The article’s blindness to the human cost borne by Africans during investment is exemplified in the brief mention that “Nestlé [has] always had a presence in Africa,” which fails to explain how controversial this presence was: A boycott of Nestlé was launched in 1977 for its harmful marketing of baby formula in poor, underdeveloped countries (including several in Africa). A report from just last year concludes that Nestlé continues to violate WHO’s code for marketing breast milk substitutes, and estimates that “95 babies could be saved every hour … if new mothers across the world breast-fed immediately after giving birth.” By viewing mothers, African or otherwise, as simply a new, untapped market and potential source of wealth, the Swiss company has likely contributed to the deaths and worsened health conditions of thousands of children around the world.
Articles like the cover of this issue of the Yale Economic Review suggest that economics is a discipline seriously lacking in a sense of moral responsibility and historical context. Might we be looking at a fundamental failing in elite education? In the past year, about 17 percent of graduating seniors at Harvard, Yale and Princeton had some kind of economics concentration. Are we seriously graduating hundreds of students each year who will go into the fields of finance, business and consulting without any consideration of critical race theory and the complex histories that have disenfranchised whole populations around the world? We can’t prevent history from repeating itself when we fail to acknowledge that colonial and imperialist ideologies, like the ones perpetuated in this article, are what have brought us to the world that we live in today.
Dianne Lake is a junior in Ezra Stiles College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.