Someone needs to tell Oprah that Africa isn’t one country. This is what Lindsay Louis, a trainee at the South African Department of Foreign Affairs, said when I spoke with him during my recent trip to South Africa. From his perspective, Oprah is one of many reasons Americans think that all African countries are identical.

He’s right. Most of us know little about Africa, and our inability to distinguish between its countries is, without question, linked to the continent’s portrayal by charities and the media. Despite our lack of knowledge, we’ve demonstrated an immense desire to help Africa and donate money. But if Americans want to make a serious contribution to Africa’s well-being, they can start by recognizing that African countries each experience a unique set of problems.

Most everyone knows that African countries face serious problems with HIV/AIDS and poverty, that the continent is known for slums rather than cities and that many countries experience political unrest. But they don’t know how these problems vary from country to country, as I found when discussing my trip with people when I came home. Many displayed a mild degree of ignorance, asking if I stayed in a tent or a hotel, or if I was at risk of contracting tuberculosis. Some didn’t seem to know that the country I was in even existed. One student in my group from the University of Michigan called her credit card company to say she was going to South Africa, to which the representative responded, “Which country?”

The misguided perception that all African countries are the same isn’t surprising. The continent receives most of its exposure from celebrity-sponsored charities that inform us about continental issues. It’s difficult to ignore products from Bono’s (Product)Red campaign against HIV/AIDS or the 2005 Live 8 concert festival intended to raise awareness about African poverty. Such projects are admirable ways of providing emergency relief to a continent that needs it. But they spread the false perception that Africa’s poverty can be solved through charity alone, which leads people to believe that the problems each country faces are identical.

In reality, each country faces different problems, and long-term solutions to those problems will vary from country to country. In South Africa, for instance, overcoming poverty and disease will require overcoming de facto segregation, which still exists despite the collapse of apartheid in 1994. Most South Africans who are white, Indian or of a mixed heritage earn normal or high incomes by U.S. standards, and the poorest citizens are predominantly of African descent. For this reason, solutions in South Africa require more than just charity. They will require equalizing a segregated job market and restructuring a largely private health care system that primarily caters to those who already have money.

Media and news sources also contribute to the one-country myth by perpetuating stereotypes that the continent is run solely by corrupt governments. News stories tend to mask the true progress achieved by developing governments and portray Africa as a continent destined to diverge into disorder.

Media coverage of South Africa uses these stereotype by implying that its government is not yet a true democracy due to its lack of a competitive party system. When the New York Times and The Economist covered the recent South African presidential election, they focused heavily on this point. They drew attention to the fact that no political party can compete with the African National Congress, the party that has won every presidential election and controlled South Africa’s Parliament since 1994. But it’s the South African citizens who have always voted for the ANC in large numbers. This trend is unlikely to change in the near future. The insistence that these results are disappointing undermines the fact that South African officials are elected democratically and fairly.

Charities and media sources have succeeded in making us believe that Africa is one giant disease stricken, impoverished country engaged in civil war. We are willing to donate billions of dollars to Africa and simultaneously hesitant to believe that its governments are developing democracies. Because of this distorted view, we have not realized that the countries that make up Africa are diverse and the solutions to their problems will have to be diverse as well. In South Africa’s case, charity alone will not fix the systematic segregation that fuels poverty. If we can collectively change our perception of Africa from that of a homogeneous continent, we will find it be beneficial to our desire to help.

Jeremy Levy can be reached at jeremlev@umich.edu.

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