The deplorable Russian invasion of Ukraine has been triggering my memories of the point, two years ago, on March 11th 2020, when the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared Covid-19 a global pandemic.
While the Ukraine War and the Covid-19 pandemic couldn’t be more different, they both serve to illustrate how the international community views the African continent when it comes to global events.
All too often the international community makes three basic mistakes when it comes to Africa and its place in the world order. This is detrimental not only to Africans but to the world as a whole. Let me explain them.
Mistreatment of Africans
The first mistake is the treatment of Africans when disaster strikes. As Covid-19 struck China, Africans became victims of racism, racially profiled and in cases left homeless, especially in the city of Guangzhou. Similarly, as war struck Ukraine, Africans were left in the cold to suffer while white people able to leave the country at their will.
With both experiences, there was initially denial, but in both cases also African condemnation at the highest levels, and eventually, Chinese and Ukrainian authorities adjusted their behaviour. Overall, however, both Covid-19 and the new war exposed that racism is alive across the world and needs a great deal of further work to eradicate.
The second mistake is with regards to expectations of African government responses to these crises. With Covid-19, there was a knee-jerk reaction that African people would be worst hit globally by Covid-19 due to weak health systems.
This revealed biases that African governments have inferior health policies, or that they and citizens are corrupt or don’t follow rules. We’ve seen similar knee-jerk reactions that African countries are beholden to Russia and that their views on Ukraine are monolithic.
Instead, the reality is that African governments, coordinated by the African Union’s Centres for Disease Control (Africa CDC), were able to examine evidence about Covid-19 response measures objectively, rather than “taking sides” – neither accepting the European herd immunity strategy, nor locking down to China’s extent, while innovating with tailored measures such as border controls and curfews. Africans introduced innovative policies that others could learn from.
Similarly, today we are seeing African countries take nuanced and complex positions on Russia’s actions and responses, informed by our own history and experiences of invasion, oppression, and the Cold War.
That does not mean we have one uniform view, but a diversity of views that can inform the rest of the world – for example on the importance of regional dialogue, the impact of sanctions, and the potential for truth and reconciliation after war, as employed in Rwanda and South Africa.
Last but not least is the third mistake, seen in analysis of the indirect effects of Covid-19 and the Russia-Ukraine war. Here, Africans are imagined as the most vulnerable, and therefore in need of humanitarian aid after a new crisis. With Covid-19, numerous leaders expressed concern that African nations would tumble into a debt crisis and millions of people fall into poverty due to economic shutdowns.
We see similar concerns today, buttressed by figures circulating of African dependency on wheat imports from Ukraine and Russia, implying this dependency is worse than the rest of the world. These simple analyses are not only misleading – they can distract attention from what really needs to change. In the case of Covid-19’s economic effects, whilst challenging, African debt has proved resilient.
Just three African governments out of 55 have said they actively need to restructure their finance – two of which (Ethiopia and Chad) have faced civil war recently. But how have the rest been so robust?
The fact is, African economies were marginalised from early Covid-19 shocks due to their lack of trade and financial flows with the rest of the world. Thereafter, governments spent cautiously but nevertheless reached an estimated over 200m people with specific measures to counter the economic difficulties – from fuel price controls to worker compensation schemes.
Likewise, most African countries’ dependency on Russia and Ukraine is low – African countries as a whole import less than 3% of their agricultural imports from the two countries (while Europe imports a combined 7%), and most African consumers have alternatives to wheat for their staples.
Several African governments – from Egypt to Benin – are nevertheless proactively taking steps to mitigate potential rising inflation – steps that many others around the world are not taking.
The lesson? African governments aren’t helpless and don’t need aid – they need higher quality debt, trade and investment from the rest of the world, which will in turn enable them to support their citizens more flexibly.
Learning from mistakes
So what can businesses from across the world, especially those from or working in the African continent, learn from these three mistakes?
I have previously argued that the experience of Covid-19 should shift perceptions of who is and isn’t more “risky” or “vulnerable”. Today, unfortunately, it seems this is still not happening. Africans not only bear the brunt of racism globally but our economies also remain marginalised. This must change.
But there is an even deeper lesson. Far from being the “worst”, African countries are often exemplary. We have a great deal of experience that can help solve global problems. Yet, current multilateral systems are oriented in the opposite way. They are oriented to ostensibly “help” Africans, when it would be equally useful for others – especially richer countries – to be humble, and act in ways that Africans have.
Put differently, reform of international systems to enable Africans to be treated equally, to shape global economic trends to ensure our own prosperity, and to share lessons with others is urgent. I sincerely hope we do not need another global pandemic or a terrible war before the international community stops repeating these same mistakes.
Hannah Ryder is CEO of Development Reimagined, an African-led international consultancy based in China.