The major story this week was the outbreak of yet another round of fighting in the Eastern Congo, where troops backed by Rwanda are clashing with a motley comination of UN and Congolese forces. This has brought out the usual hand-wringing from the Western press and the development lobby, as Africa optimism has given way to Africa pessimism. But both the optimists and the pessimists are missing the real story: the rapid modernization of Africa:
But if the Africa optimists are clueless, the pessimists are flat wrong. Africa is not unchanging; a dynamic process of development and transition is indeed taking place across the continent. Tens of millions of people are flocking to the cities; population is booming; more people are becoming educated; investment is changing the nature of African economies from the Sahara to the Cape of Good Hope. Technologies like cell phones are changing African lives; emigration and remittances are pumping money into economies all over the continent; the triumph of Christianity across sub-Saharan Africa is having progressively deeper cultural and psychological impact; hundreds of millions of people are living in a world their parents and grandparents never knew.
Something is happening, but neither the optimists nor the pessimists get it—less because they don’t understand Africa than because they don’t understand history and modernization very well. . .
Both the optimistic and pessimistic points of view can point to evidence that backs them up in other parts of the world as well as in Africa. The reason is that modernization itself contains both positive and negative elements. As Europe modernized in the 19th and 20th centuries, democracy spread, women got more rights, societies became more fair—and repeated episodes of murderous nationalism killed tens of millions of people and drove tens of millions from their homes in the most destructive wars and radical outbreaks of evil in the written history of mankind.
Those events were connected: modernization promotes nationalism and nationalism often leads both to democracy and mass murder. That was true across Europe; we can see it at work in the Middle East, and ethnic conflict between Tutsis and Hutus in the Great Lakes area in Africa is a major driver of the violence in the eastern Congo today.
The Israel-Hamas conflict in Gaza sucked up most of the attention in the Middle East. Although the eventual cease-fire essentially restored the pre-conflict status-quo, Israel came out of the conflict with some important goals achieved, stabilizing its relationship with post-Arab Spring Egypt and improving its position vis-a-vis Iran. On top of this, Israel has managed to gin up interest in its “Iron Dome” missile defense system, a boon for its military tech industry. Hamas for its part managed to elbow its way a little farther onto the international stage and undercut its Fatah rivals on the West Bank as dignitaries across the Arab world flocked to Gaza. Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi is also looking like a winner, using his political capital from the successful cease-fire to claim more powers for himself at home. In response to Morsi’s power grab, protests are now spreading across Egypt, pitting opponents of an Islamic revolution against its supporters in a heated battle over the Mubarak-era judiciary. Meanwhile, the British government has been making noises about a possible intervention in Syria, where fighting continues to rage with no end in sight.
In Asia, the ASEAN summit has drawn considerable attention over the calls for the “internationalization” of disputes in the South China Sea and its effect on America’s role in the region. Meanwhile, China is still getting used to its new government, which has seen an influx of social science majors replacing the engineers on the Politburo Standing Committee and the removal of the powerful security minister from the ruling body. Outwardly, however, little has changed, as China continues to pointlessly provoke and annoy its neighbors. Elsewhere in the region we’ve seen anti-government protests in Thailand, a government-mandated cellphone blackout in Pakistan, and a potential end to the “lost decade” in Japan.
Closer to home, we’re seeing blue meltdowns in familiar places. The Democrats have strengthened their hold on America’s most dysfunctional state, raising taxes further in the process, the Detroit City Council found a new way to shoot itself in the foot, and the Postal Service is on the cusp of running out of cash. On the brighter side, the housing market is showing serious signs of recovery, and the online-ed movement has continued to build momentum as more schools come to terms with the changes sweeping through higher-ed. Elsewhere, big-box stores are losing market share to e-commerce as the shopping season begins.