Who Leads WHO Matters

Why Misconceptions about Africa Persist

An Epidemic Intelligence Service Officer for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention visits a World Health Organization office in Guinea, West Africa, during the 2014 Ebola epidemic. Photo Credit: CDC

Before his anticipated July 1 start date as Director General of the World Health Organization, former health minister for Ethiopia Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus embarks on a tour of the United States. Commonly referred to as “Dr. Tedros,” his ascension to Director General marks the first time in history a WHO Director-General will be an African. His election broke the “African-leadership glass ceiling,” despite Africa being a primary target of global health funding.

The lack of Africans in key global leadership positions reflects popular stereotypes dating back to colonialism and continuing to play out. The problem is systematic, and we’re participants in it.

For outsiders, Africa is a trope, the imagery of corruption, violence, starvation, overpopulation, and abject need so familiar we rarely question it. Vice-President Joe Biden and President George W. Bush each separately referred to Africa as a country.

Such representations belie an enormous, tremendously complex and diverse continent. Africa is so large that the United States, western and eastern Europe, China, Mexico, and Japan could fit inside it. The continent includes 54 countries and over 2,000 languages.

Certainly corruption, child soldiers, rape, gender inequality, HIV/AIDS and poverty are part of the continent’s landscape. Yet these stories are completely over-represented in the media and Hollywood. As outsiders, we get so used to the narrative, we can hardly conceptualize that it could be any other way.

My over a decade of research in healthcare settings in Tanzania, East Africa informs my teaching at Northwestern University. Many of my students’ assumptions about Africa reflect generalized misconceptions shared more broadly. These misconceptions are tremendously difficult to unseat.

Such an ingrained superiority complex can, and does, cause harm.

For instance, many foreign volunteers in Tanzania think they can do a better job than local health professionals, even when those volunteers have no medical skills.

Health professionals on the front lines of reproductive health services in Tanzania. Photo credit: N. Sullivan, taken February 28, 2008.

Anthropologist Adia Benton finds similar stereotypes about African humanitarian workers, who are often forced to prove their expertise where their white colleagues are considered experts merely by virtue of being white.

Many outsiders disparage gender inequalities or critique African countries for rampant corruption but ignore these problems in our own countries. Many picture Africa at the bottom of a development hierarchy.

That conception allows for missing wider characteristics of the continent that are truly noteworthy.

There have been 10 female presidents in African countries, most notably Liberia’s popularly-elected President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who has been in power for over a decade. Rwanda, where a genocide over 20 years ago remains top of mind for some, has better gender equality than the United States, Spain, France, Switzerland, Germany, and Denmark.

Growing upper and middle classes in Africa are good news for business, and the continent is increasingly seen as a significant emerging market. Airbnb and Uber are expanding markets there.

Technological innovations allow more Africans to engage markets and innovate businesses using mobile devices and the internet. Microsoft just announced it would deliver Microsoft Cloud from South African data centers beginning in 2018.

Cape Town, South Africa during morning rush hour.

To be sure, African countries receive billions in development aid from around the world. However, the amount that they receive in aid is outpaced by what is extracted from the continent, and Western economic interests are a large part of that story.

A new study claims that African countries are “net creditors to the rest of the world, to the tune of $41.3 billion in 2015.” Many of the continent’s natural resources are exploited or owned by foreign corporations, while tax havens ensure that multinational corporations can repatriate their profits to avoid paying taxes to the countries from which they’re extracting resources.

As reported in The Guardian, Dr. Jason Hickel, an economic anthropologist at the London School of Economics, said of the study, “One of the many problems with the aid narrative is it leads the public to believe that rich countries are helping developing countries, but that narrative skews the often extractive relationship that exists between rich and poor countries.”

Our uninformed tropes about Africa prevent us from seeing our involvement in the problems the continent continues to face, let alone the dynamism and potential of the region. We don’t see the innovative leaders because we can’t imagine they might be African.

Stereotypes are the shorthand of the ignorant. It’s why the rest of the world sees the U.S. as “ugly Americansobsessed with guns, or blundering idiots. During an interview for “60 Minutes,” Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said, “It might be nice if [Americans] paid a little more attention to the world.” Of course, these stereotypes of the uninformed American are problematic also; they belie the diversity and capacity within the U.S.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in 2013

Stereotypes are what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie refers to in her 2009 TED Talk as “The Danger of a Single Story,” which has been viewed over 12 million times. She reminds us that everyone can be guilty of misunderstanding others, and of the importance of diverse narratives.

When I was young, the single story of an “Africa” in need was what drew me, a white person from North America, to the continent. When I went to Tanzania to learn Swahili, what I saw undermined that single story.

Of the candidates for the WHO leadership, Dr. Tedros was alone in campaigning for strengthening local capabilities to improve global health security. He saw local capacity others did not. Hopefully in changing WHO’s direction, Dr. Tedros will also help diversify narratives so we can move beyond familiar tropes.