But the University of Michigan has a sharply different view. It sees the challenges but also recognizes the promise and opportunities in Africa, which has actually been booming for much of the past decade.
That's why the university has renewed $1.8 million in funding over the next three years for its Africa Studies Center. The money will support research, courses, fellowships and several other initiatives.
Derek Peterson, the center's acting director, said there are good reasons to be optimistic about Africa.
"Economies are growing, governments are becoming more responsible and people are prospering," he said.
Eleven of the 20 fastest-growing economies are now in Africa, the International Monetary Fund reported this year. Last year, the Economist changed its assessment, declaring that Africa is now "the hopeful continent."
"What the African Studies Center wants to do is to help students and faculty realize there is a tremendously exciting knowledge being generated in Africa, by Africans, and that this intellectual, religious, and economic dynamism has real effects on the way the world more generally works," Peterson said.
U-M has long been a leader in Africa studies, but the university changed its approach after U-M President Mary Sue Coleman led a delegation to the continent in 2008.
In the wake of Coleman's trip, the Africa Studies Center was founded with a mission to go far beyond the social sciences and humanities—the traditional focus of African centers at most other universities.
U-M's center began drawing in students and professors from engineering, public health, law, medicine, public policy and many other fields.
"No other university that I know of has had as much success or has tried to integrate so many fields of study in the same center for African studies," Peterson said.
Along with supporting six international conferences and the travel of students and faculty to Africa, the center has funded:
- Courses on statistical analysis for African scholars.
- Rebuilding the school of engineering at the University of Liberia.
- Projects cataloging and preserving government archives in Uganda and South Sudan.
- Study-abroad summer programs for engineering students in Ghana.
The center has also created the African Scholars Program, which each year brings to Ann Arbor 14 scholars from a variety of disciplines for up to six months of sabbatical research. So far, 61 scholars have participated in the program, and many are collaborating with their U-M mentors.
Peterson said African universities are doing tremendous work rethinking the ways political communities, economies and other things should work.
"What the study of Africa helps us see is the other possibilities and the other kinds of opportunities that are emerging at the margins outside the world we are familiar with as North Americans," he said.
For more about what U-M is doing in Africa, check the university's interactive global map: http://global.umich.edu/worldwide/map