A joke is told of a hypothetical United Nations survey that ended up being an utter disaster.
There was only one question under the survey: “Would you please give your honest opinion about solutions to food shortage in the rest of the world?” This otherwise seemingly simple question proved to be rather confusing for the various respondents.
In South America, for instance, they didn’t know what “please” meant. In Eastern Europe, they didn’t know what “honest” meant. In China, they didn’t know what “opinion” meant. In the Middle East, they didn’t know what “solution” meant.
In Western Europe, they didn’t know what “shortage” meant. In the US, they didn’t know what “the rest of the world” meant. Sadly, in Africa they didn’t know what “food” meant!
While such jokes serve more to enhance geopolitical stereotypes rather than paint the realities of those regions, Africa’s low ranking position on the global food chain is not limited to metaphorical satires but is unfortunately anchored in fact.
Despite being the second-largest in size and second most populous continent with an estimated population of a billion people as at 2013, Africa barely control’s 2.5 per cent of the world’s gross domestic product.
Various theories have been mooted to explain the laggard nature of the continent’s economic prospects and a multitude of solutions administered with varying (mostly underwhelming) levels of success.
In my bid to bolster this basket of theories, allow me to correlate Africa’s economic growth with the growth of football which, passion notwithstanding, have failed to garner the global prominence they deserve.
While African football and the economy are grounded on abundance of resources and talent, their potential has been stunted by poor leadership, mismanagement and corruption within the ranks of their administrations.
Both show a glimmer of hope that they are on the recovery table but are yet to give us a reason to believe they will be discharged from hospital any time soon.
The best case study that brings this relationship to life is the World Cup. Africa is a complex mix of countries yet nothing brings us closer than the global tournament showcasing the beautiful game of football.
At the World Cup, the five African representatives carry the hopes of an entire continent and elicit the kind of Pan African passions that politicians would only dream of.
But despite this overzealous billion-person strong support, Africa’s performance at the global stage remains as disappointing as the economy.
The football memories of 1990, 2002 and 2010 are of Cameroon, Senegal and Ghana flying the African flag into the last eight of the global football elite.
When the World Cup was held in South Africa in 2010, many of us reckoned that time was ripe for Africa to rise and show its full potential. But thanks to a last minute penalty miss by the Ghanaian Asamoah Gyan against Uruguay, the quarter-final curse was never lifted.
Brazil 2014 was billed as Africa’s tournament given its tropical weather that mirrors conditions in Africa.
The belief came a cropper as the remaining teams – Nigeria and Algeria – were bundled out at the last 16 stage earlier this week. Their elimination was especially sad because on paper, with Nigeria facing France and Algeria facing Germany, it looked like an automatic affair for the two European favourites to ease to victory.
Two African countries with small economic muscle were facing two European countries of economic might. As much as we may argue that the correlation is not causative, it has continuously emerged that economically stronger countries tend to beat their less economically endowed counterparts.
Any ardent football fan who watched both games would confess that the duels were not as one-sided as they appeared on paper. In fact, in the first half of both games, Nigeria and Algeria looked likely to emerge victorious only to lose in the end because of defensive frailties and stupid mistakes.
But to get to the crux of the matter, France and Germany won because they had the stronger mental will to win.
The African teams seemed excited to be simply playing at the same level as the Europeans and rarely showed the drive to want to outplay their rivals.
Ditto the economy. Africa has long refused to play on the global stage on an equal footing, opting instead for donor aid and selling low-value agricultural produce.
We are not going to achieve stellar economic growth by wishing that residents from rich countries come and spend their disposable income in Africa.
Like China, we are only going to succeed if we get a slice of these residents’ income by selling to them retail goods and services they need back home.
Less that, just like the World Cup, we shall look forward to the economic equivalent of the quarter-finals as the epitome of our potential – one which we shall not even reach this year. It will be sad for Africa.