Re-Engineering Development in African Countries Part Fifteen: Trying to Serve Two Masters

This article is a continuation of Re-Engineering Development in African Countries Part Fourteen

Let’s start with some “givens.” It is a given that many Africans, like their counterparts in other parts of the world are gifted, talented, and capable of self-help. History has established the factual reality of the statement. One can say from before Olaudah Equiano, the freed slave who was instrumental in the abolitionist movement in England in the 1700s to Nelson Mandela, the instrument of deliverance of the black people of South Africa from Apartheid in 1994. And in-between are great scientists, business magnates, and political authorities. Africa has had its moments. The challenge, therefore, is to find a credible answer to the big poser of this generation. The meddlesome issue in the minds of most observers of the affairs of the continent is, “Why have Africans not evolved a better way of (1) governing themselves; and (2) creating prosperity for their peoples?” They are fair questions. If you are wise, as most African leaders, comport themselves, it is fair to ask why the functioning of their countries does not reflect it. “By their fruits, you shall know them” can also be conveyed to correspond that “a society will evidence the wisdom of its leaders.”

The answer can be summed up in the following sentence. It is due to the absence of light! Solutions abound because the road to economic prosperity is well worn. Great Britain was once poor. The United States, the possessor of the world’s greatest economy, was once poor. Never mind the Germanic tribes. Sure it is a long time ago but there is evidential history to buttress the reality that most of the world’s nations were once very poor. Most enlightened are well acquainted with endemic Asian poverty prior to the resurgence of Asian Tiger nations and of China. That is why their resurgence is often associated with the miraculous. A good example is a term, “Miracle on the Han River,” which refers to Park Chung Hee’s government’s transformation of South Korea. The question for Africans and their leadership is why the experience has not informed how Africans conduct themselves and their nations’ economic and political affairs. Put another way, why are Africans struggling economically in spite of overwhelming evidence of how others have traversed the road to economic prosperity?

The danger of Aid Dependency

There are reasons for the apathy. Modern African leaders have latched on to the drug of “aid” as their solution to any and every challenge. The modus operandi is to suit up with a begging bowl in hand to the world community and advocate for why more “freebies” is the solution to the challenge confronting the African nation that they represent. That is what happened with the outbreak of Ebola. Granted that without the United States, Great Britain, and France, the outbreak would have had far greater consequences on the afflicted nations and, ultimately, the world. The leaders of the affected nations went to the world and said come and rid us of this plague, or else we will perish, and you may perish too because we will spread it to your shores. The question is why did it have to come to that? The answer is found in the economic ineptitude of the countries. And, sadly, in the years since the end of the outbreak, not much progress has happened in the economies of the affected countries to ensure that they will not convey the same degree of helplessness as the last time.

Going to the world with a begging bowl in hand has been the preferred action of every African nation since independence. From the north to south and from the east to the west, reliance on aid as the cure-all has rendered the most enterprising and gifted of Africans by-standers in forging solutions to the continent’s challenges. Intrepid thinker, Dambisa Moyo had this to say about aid dependency of African nations and in fact of all poor nations of the world. “The notion that aid can alleviate systemic poverty, and has done so, is a myth. Millions in Africa are poorer today because of aid; misery and poverty have not ended but increased. Aid has been, and continues to be, an unmitigated political, economic, and humanitarian disaster for most parts of the developing world.

Rejecting the “Begging Bowl” Approach

It is easier said than done. To do as Singapore’s then First Minister, the late Lee Kuan Yew said to an audience of business leaders in New York City, in one of his many stops on a “road show” to sell Singapore to American business, “On my first official visit to America in 1967, I recounted to 50 businesspeople at a luncheon in Chicago how Singapore had grown from a village of 120 fishermen in 1819 to become a metropolis of 2 million. This was because its philosophy was to provide goods and services cheaper and better than anyone else, or perish. They responded well because I was not putting my hand out for aid, which they had come to expect of leaders from newly independent countries. I noted their favorable reaction to my ‘no begging bowl’ approach.”

Leaders of Lee Kuan Yew’s ilk abound in Africa and are hiding in plain sight. It is incumbent upon society to find and anoint them for the opportunity to contribute. The simple inherency of great leadership is that they are able to embrace the task of leadership as a single-minded mission to improve a lot of society rather than an opportunity for self-enrichment or in African parlance, “their time to chop.” It has been clearly imprinted in the annals of human history that no person can serve two masters. He will hate one and despise the other. In the case of Africa, leaders have been striving, unsuccessfully, to serve two masters. They have been striving for personal gain, on one hand, and serving the people who voted them to power on the other. The people have been losing.

Finding solutions to the challenges of African countries is a full-time devotion to duty, honor, and the survival of their people and nations. It is not a matter for the faint, neither is it for the timid. The challenges facing honest leaders are daunting. It is both domestic and external. Internally, there is a substructure of business and political “machinators” whose allegiance lies elsewhere and who are intent on maintaining the status quo on which their financial prosperity rests. There are external actors who are motivated by realpolitik of maintaining their thumb on the country, ala France and the Francophone countries, Portugal, Britain, and Spain, and their former colonies, and also on preserving the economic engine from which they are deriving succor. Both of these factions often coalesce to excavate internal division and promote strife, as has been witnessed in many African countries.

The existence of domestic and external opposition to good governance, notwithstanding, there is no better time for African leaders to exert the right levers in seeking socio-economic prosperity for their people. There are numerous global forums and a greater diffusion of political and economic power like the world has never experienced before. Finance used to be an exclusive preserve of the West. This is no longer the case. Whereas the style of development still favors capitalism, the methods of implementing it are more dispersed than ever. South Korea showed the world that a system of economic development based on “Guided Capitalism” can unleash a $2 trillion dollar economy and one of the world’s most dynamic exporting nations. Most importantly, Western democracies have to compete for the opportunity to become the dominant influence in any economic sphere because of the proliferation of Chinese capital and influence.

Solutions to the challenges of African nations frequently are obfuscated by personal strife that exacerbates and elevates every socio-economic issue to personal and tribal existential crisis. However, it is an incontrovertible truth that the root of poverty in every corner, every hamlet and village is hardwired in economies that cannot create jobs. The solution is not to fight over how much of a nation’s meager resources—and they are all meager—any side is receiving but rather to find out how to use the nation’s meager resources to create an avalanche of resource flows that enables every village and every person to lift themselves out of poverty.

Fig 1. Picture of Strife in Africa

The Road to Prosperity in Every African Country is Jobs!

Creating jobs in an economy requires identifying the vehicle/s of job creation in society. Hint: it is not the government. Rather, it is the private sector. In fact, many African governments have to reduce their bloated bureaucracy significantly in order to make resources available for the task of economic nation-building. Across the entire continent, it is imperative to redefine the role of citizens and government in fostering socio-economic progress and equanimity.

In every African country, there are redundant labor and underemployed labor. Conversely, all over the world, are enterprises that need low-cost labor. Through economic policies that emphasize cheap—yes—cheap currency, companies will be amenable to being persuaded to locate manufacturing plants in their countries. Leaders who are driven by the desire to improve the lot of their people and country will concentrate on the low hanging fruit of using global enterprises to create jobs. The companies will tell leaders what they need to make their boards comfortable with locating manufacturing facilities in their country. If leaders listen and implement the suggestions they receive, they will reap the fruits of jobs and economic resurgence. The example of Ethiopia and Rwanda as illustrated in the figure of the fastest growing economies of the millennium is instructive.

Fig 2. Fastest Growing Economies of the Millennium

There is also a political environment that is amenable to the strategy. Traditionally, western firms have migrated to Southeast Asia because of labor and political advantages. The engine that unleashed China was Western firms relocating their plants to China because of labor and political collaboration of Deng Xiaoping’s China. Things are not what they once were. China is fully grown and exerting its well-earned influence on the global stage and there are rumblings of discord in Western societies. Chinese firms are relocating to African countries to manufacture for export to Western countries. African countries should gear up to sell their environment to companies around the world to relocate and produce for export to their customers throughout the world and in their home markets. The time for outside-the-box thinking to unleash the potential of African countries is now.