Africa has quietly been making strides in productive development and improved health care and education, but many outsiders still hold outmoded views of the continent. Economists make light of the impressive statistic that more than half of the 10 fastest- growing economies are African countries, saying they sprang from a low growth base. They think growth is all resource-based, a depleting asset. But huge investments are being made in finance, telecommunication, energy and manufacturing by some 2,500 Chinese companies as well as other foreign players in Africa.
In governance, a new generation of well-educated administrators and leaders is turning countries like Botswana, Mozambique and Namibia into models of effective management, free of the old tribal tensions. But images of dictators and the plunder of diamonds and oil still endure. There is rapacity and misrule of course in Arab and black Africa, but the pathology is not uniquely African.
Governments and companies looking for new trade opportunities and promising destinations for surplus funds will have to update their scant knowledge - and their empathy quotient - for the least understood continent in modern times.
US President Barack Obama tried this but he attracted snide remarks when he hosted some 45 African heads of state in Washington last week. He was a latecomer to a process pioneered by France and China, joined lately by Japan. Crucially, the US move acknowledged potential in economic partnerships, something China had known and acted upon for well over a decade now. Even then, its investment and trade with Africa is under 5 per cent of its total.
Cynicism about the US-Africa leaders' session arose from the fact that it appeared secondary to the consolidation of America's military presence in the continent through its African Command, which maintains troops for targeted interventions and is active in some 35 countries. What is unspoken is that it serves also as a platform for monitoring Chinese activities, much like what the Pacific Command does in the western Pacific.
When all is said and done, however, economic collaboration must be the objective of diplomatic manoeuvres. What matters most at this stage of Africa's emergence is that countries which bring technical know-how and development expertise share with their hosts the gains while they undertake to build the ports, roads, rail links and productive capacity to push development along.
It has to be a partnership. Just sucking out raw wealth and profits, like what the old European colonisers did to fuel their home industries, will not be tolerated in this day and age.