One of the biggest problems with political activists — wherever they lie on the left-right spectrum — is the tendency to oversimplify. This is understandable, many believe that complexity can lead to Hamletesque soliloquies weighing the options rather than provoking action. On the other hand, simplistic views of the world can themselves be a barrier to action — making problems seem intractable or hindering complex solutions where they are needed. This debate came up recently on the World Changing when Alex Steffen posted this picture of rapidly falling life expectancies in five African countries:
This chart ought to be framed and hung on the wall of every political leader on the planet.
It is indeed a heartbreaking graph, but without detracting from the power of this story, Ethan Zuckerman offered a friendly critique:
The five nations pictured in the graph above are five of the nations most powerfully impacted by HIV/AIDS. The impact of AIDS on the entire continent is not evenly distributed. While many southern African nations are experiencing adult infection rates of 25% or greater, many nations further north have been able to keep infection rates below 10%. While this still has a devestating impact on local populations, it means that life expectancy in those nations has increased, not declined, over the past few decades.
Ethan offered this graph which better captures the complexity of the situation:
Finally, Ethan concludes with these comments:
Why is this important? (Why would I take time to critique a graph whose message and importance I agree with?) There’s a terrible tendency for Westerners to encounter some of the hard facts about life in Africa and throw their hands up in despair. While I know that your reaction to a graph like this, Alex, is to redouble your efforts for social justice around the world, the reaction of many people is to dismiss Africa as hopeless.
Africa is an incredible mix of hope and hopelessness, regression and progress, challenges and victories. It’s important to celebrate the victories while we mourn the failures.