Is [Angola] a Real Place? Do You Care?
Two years ago this month, I got a call from Neil Breslin, an old friend who’s been based in Africa for the past 10 years. “Hey Steve, can you do me a favor?”
Me: “Sure.” Neil: I need you to make me a short video that shows what typical, educated Americans know about Angola. I’m going to show it to some of my clients. Give me a good range of people.”
Sure, why not! So the next morning, I drove to the White House.
At the Starbucks at 17th & Pennsylvania, I bought $75 worth of $5 gift cards (I learned this long ago from a producer for a PR firm who hired me to make some man-on-the-street videos). Then I stood outside the Starbucks with my camera and microphone and accosted coffee-seekers: “I’ll give you a $5 Starbucks gift card if you give me 1 minute of your time . . . to answer a few questions about Africa for a news bit for YouTube.”
Lots of people ignored me like the plague. In fact, the first 10 tries, I couldn’t even finish my sentence before the person raced away.
But free coffee is a powerful motivator! And the interviews began. Dare I say—some people even looked like they were having fun!
What does it mean if the 5th richest country in Africa is invisible to educated Americans a block from the White House?
Within 30 minutes, I did 15 interviews and gave away all the gift cards. That afternoon, I included everybody in the final edit (plus a few friends, who gave moral support). Nobody got left on the editing room floor.
The results were illuminating! Nobody knew Angola’s capital. Nobody could name any person alive or dead, from Angola. Nobody knew Angolans speak Portuguese. Only a few located it in the “south” or “southwest.”
The woman of Nigerian descent (0:56) knew more than most, but still had precious little knowledge. One woman was so at a loss, she treated the whole thing as a joke (1:12). The guy at the end summed it up well (4:12): “Is Angola a real place? I don’t think it’s in Africa.”
Is Angola a real country? Do people even care? What does it mean if the 5th richest country in Africa is invisible to educated Americans a block from the White House?
No offense to the kind people of Ouagadougou or Bujumbura, but it’s not as if Angola is some tiny, landlocked country like Burkina Faso or Burundi. There’s a few reasons it might be considered in our national interest to bone up on our Angola facts: It’s America’s 3rd most important trading partner in Africa. It’s the 15th biggest oil exporter in the world after all.
When Angolans saw the video, it seemed to strike a chord. As you can imagine, the YouTube comments lit up. So Neil hit the streets of Luanda (the capital) to make a reply video: to see if typical Angolans knew much about America:
Revealing, isn’t it! Even Angolan teenagers seem to have better cross-cultural knowledge than working professionals in the shadow of the White House.
Sure, there are explanations why. A dominant power exports its culture to the world—a logical extension of Joseph Nye’s “Soft Power” theory.
Now, soft power is a big assist for U.S. national interests and public diplomacy, but what if they learn about us, but we don’t ever learn about them? Does it really matter? So what if our Trivial Pursuit games last all night because we can’t get that last blue pie piece?
Here’s one way it matters: Next month, there’s a big meeting in Moscow to determine how much money the 82 poorest countries in the world (40 of which are in Africa) can access for grants and interest-free loans. These countries are home to 2.8 billion people. An estimated 1.8 billion of those live on less than $2 per day. These poorest countries use this “cheap” money for infrastructure, education, health, and clean water. It’s an investment. It helps them be less poor. Maybe their children can live on $4 per day.
The convening organization is IDA, or the International Development Association, which is a unit of the World Bank Group. The pot of money has averaged about $16 billion a year the last few years and it is shared by 52 rich countries. Even though the U.S. only gives about 11% of the total (or about $1.8 billion), it plays a catalytic role in getting the rest of the world motivated. The word on the street is that the U.S. may be wavering on its commitment to the poorest of the poor.
Now, $1.8 billion per year is not chump change—but when you consider it’s going to the 82 poorest countries in the world, it’s not that much. J.P. Morgan Stanley recently got fined $13 billion. Americans spent $7 billion on Halloween this year. The U.S. Pet Industry is estimated at $55 billion per year.
The only problem, perhaps, is that we live in a democracy. If IDA funding is rooted in the will of the American people, then we’re in trouble. That’s because we Americans are not likely to fund stuff we don’t care about. And we only care about what we know.
Is Angola [or the other 80 poorest countries] a real place?
Do we care?