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Cape Verde: African good news story

Men using laptops in the street

The remarkable economic and political progress of Cape Verde is seen as a blueprint for the rest of Africa, writes BBC Today programme presenter Evan Davis after a visit to the tiny island state.

Contrary to the impression you might have had of African nations, here is one where democracy flourishes

I have to admit, I couldn't have told you three interesting facts about Cape Verde until I was asked to go there for the Today programme.

I didn't know where it was - 570km (354 miles) off the coast of West Africa. I didn't even know how to pronounce its name.

And then I found myself sent there on a three-day mission to investigate a startling story: That sub-Saharan Africa is not just a region of starving children and warring dictators.

The assignment was at the behest of guest editor Mo Ibrahim who strongly feels that the Western media portrays Africa in a monotonously negative light. Could that really be true?

Well, my ignorance of how to pronounce Cape Verde's name is forgivable. (I'm still not sure and have heard it pronounced with and without an "ee" at the end of Verde.)

But is it forgivable that I didn't know it is one of only a handful of countries ever to have been promoted out of the UN "least developed nation" category (up to "middle income country" status)? And that it is a well-functioning democracy with government alternating between different political parties?

I should have known these things, and I'm glad to say that my three-day trip more or less confirmed them.

a girl leans on some boxes
Young Cape Verdeans can expect far better education than their parents

Contrary to the impression you might have had of African nations, here is one where democracy flourishes; where a president stepped down after two terms in office because that is what the constitution required (take note Mr Putin) and where the opposition freely criticises the government.

It is a country where economic growth has been strong, where literacy is almost universal and two-thirds of the population have a phone.

It is also a country that beats many EU countries in the Transparency International Corruptions Perceptions Index.

Now on a three-day trip, you cannot verify all these assertions but you can get a clear impression.

I went to a square in the capital, Praia, where I saw a dozen young people poring over their laptops, taking advantage of the free wi-fi available in that and other squares.

I saw a tourism training college that had been paid for by Luxembourg's aid programme. It functioned well, there were real students there and no money had gone missing into a Swiss bank account.

I spoke to the founder of a small e-business called Prime Consulting, who spoke highly of the ease with which new business could be established in the country (it takes ten minutes he said).

Property bubbles

These facts - and my lack of awareness of them - suggest there may be something in Mo Ibrahim's point. We know the bad news about Africa, but not the good.

And given the sheer volume of bad that emanates from countries in sub-Saharan Africa, we make generalised assumptions about the entire population of sub-Saharan Africa.

Evan makes use of a free wifi hotspot in Praia
Evan makes use of a free wi-fi hotspot in Praia
Now I don't want to paint a ludicrously one-dimensionally optimistic view of the country. It is no paradise.

Many people live in slums. The country is covered in them. The national income per head is about a tenth of that of the UK and I didn't even get out of the towns to see the rural poor.

In addition, some of the recent economic growth appears to have occurred on the back of a ridiculous holiday-property bubble. Irish, British and other investors got overexcited and the result is that many unfinished developments litter the main tourist island of Sal.

But still Cape Verde has come a long way over a short period of time. It is a country that had famines killing tens of thousands of people in the first half of the 20th Century that now worries about property bubbles.

The most telling conversation I had there was with Samira who told me that while her mother had not been to high school (there weren't enough of them at the time) but she, Samira, now goes to university.

It is true that Cape Verde is an unusual off-shore example, but before dismissing it as the exception that proves the rule that the rest of Africa is beyond help or hope, it is worth taking a look at the statistics for per capita national income growth of sub-Saharan African countries over the last decade: Ghana 104% growth; Mozambique 103%; Rwanda 119%; Sierra Leone 99%; Tanzania 95%; Uganda 81%, to name just a few.

I'm not sure these growth rates have made it through to the public at large.

We wouldn't want reporters to act as cheer leaders for a continent and we don't want them to always be seeing glasses as half full. That would perhaps stop us trying fill them to the top.

But if we only ever see half empty glasses, that can be demotivating too. It can nurture a dull fatalism that assumes doing anything is a waste of effort.

So whenever you feel the wearisome drag of compassion fatigue, you can at least remind yourself that Cape Verde does suggest progress in that part of the world is not impossible.

Get in touch with Today via email , Twitter or Facebook or text us on 84844.

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