Salut Tout le Monde,
Here are my responses to the “Ask Me Anything: Q&A session”. Interestingly enough, most of the questions and suggestions I got are development based. And frankly, I think it’s time I got back on development anyhow. So, keep an eye out for more blogs on development-related issues (corruption, education, investment etc).
The question below came from Mash via Facebook. He sent me some very relevant questions, which deserve an entire post each, so instead of a short answer, I’m going to go in depth with each response. I’m interested in seeing what you peeps think about what he asks, whether you agree with me, or disagree and all of that. Do leave your own opinions and thoughts after reading.
Q: What in your opinion is the greater impediment to development in Africa? Poor leadership or harsh conditionalities by donor organizations?
A: Both poor leadership and harsh conditionalities make navigating the development trail hard for African countries. But in my opinion, one takes precedence over the other. Poor leadership is without a doubt, the greater impediment. Especially since it’s the lack of the necessary leadership that gives birth to some of these “harsh conditionalities”.
I understand that being a leader is not an easy task. It takes a deep understanding of not only one’s country or charge, but also the political, socio-economic and global climate. However, those should not be an excuse for slacking on one’s responsibilities as a leader. African leaders’ obligation is – and should be- to their people first and foremost, because it’s the people who entrust them with their resources, lives, hopes and dreams.
Many leaders today feel entitled to the positions they occupy. And maybe, it’s true to some degree. They might have made great strides in education and professionally, with degrees and accolades to show for their work. But when it comes to representing one’s people or a cause, I believe it’s important not to rest on one’s laurels and just assume that things will come easy. Nothing worthwhile comes easy.
The Well of Poverty
I often make the comparison between African leaders and “a well of poverty”, a spin-off of the cycle of poverty. Most Africans are stuck in that well and just about every one is trying to climb out of it. Some will step on their fellow Africans in order to get closer to the opening, while others sit sunken-eyed in a corner of the well and submit themselves to their fate. Others still discuss plans for escaping the well, but alas, when they attempt to put the plan together by building a ‘human ladder’ of sorts, those who refused to partake in the plan, simply thwart their efforts by pushing them aside.
Once in a while, someone is able to escape that well of poverty; usually by making promises to some of the well’s inhabitants, who then contribute what little resources they have so as to see this person emerge as their “leader”. In some instances, these leaders succeed in pulling some of their counterparts out of the well — usually within the first couple of years of holding the position as minister, president or what-have-you. In most cases however, the “leader” gets out of the well, looks down at the beseeching eyes of his supporters and spits on them, wondering to him or herself how he/she ever associated with such scum. After all those years in the well, it’s his/her time to live in luxury and enjoy the comforts of life. That’s when the feeling of entitlement starts, and it just goes downhill from there.
For those of us who don’t really understand what donor conditionalities are, I’ll try to explain. Take a regular bank. People go there for loans and most of those loans have terms of application or conditions. The borrower usually requires some form of collateral in order to issue the loan. At the end of the day, it’s an agreement between two parties and any deviations from the agreement incur some penalties.
It’s the same thing with developing or African countries and big shot loaners like the World Bank, IMF, developed countries like the U.S. etc. Only a tad more complex. African countries seek to pursue certain development projects – say, providing water to their citizens. They don’t have the capital base, so they go to these institutions which they are members of. The institution agrees to provide the capital on condition that…It’s usually a long list of conditions. In some instances it might be said that the African country has to appoint American or British nationals as project managers (for instance). Or that they have to use tools and resources from the West. Or that they have to institute particular policies in order to receive the loan. What makes these conditions “harsh” is the fact that they limit the “policy space” of African leaders. It’s like giving someone a list of 10 options with 7 of the options crossed out. Also, it ends up worsening the debt situations of many African countries since the premiums paid on the loans tend to be very high.
Now initially, I was very biased against donor conditionalities. Until recently. Having done a lot of research on donors – particularly U.S. and European – I’ve gotten a glimpse at their side of the story. Don’t get me wrong, I haven’t jumped ship. I’ve just opened my mind to understanding their point of view. Many of these donors regard their loans as investments. Investments are generally risky, but where African countries are concerned – especially in weak democracies like war-torn African countries – they are especially risky. In order to “protect” their investments (and their interests) these donor countries rely on the conditions they place on loans and what-nots. At the end of the day, the West is protecting it’s interests. What are we doing to protect ours? That’s the question Africans should be asking.
A Question of Interest and Responsibility
More and more, I’ve come to realize that development work these days is more of business and less of philanthropy. Like any business agency, development organizations invest in ventures that they consider profitable – whether in the long-run or the short run. Hence U.S. and other western agencies protecting their interests.
Now this is where many African leaders have failed to show true leadership. Sure, you might have to take loans from multi-lateral institutions like the World Bank and IMF, and yes, they will impose certain conditions – like insisting that you use resources from a particular country or organization, that you pay a certain premium on a loan etc – BUT your duty is to negotiate the best possible deal for your people.
Many African leaders today are not willing to take the necessary risks or do the necessary work to negotiate the best deals for their constituencies. Why? Because they fear the ire of their western counterparts. At this point, I guess its fair to say that more often than not, the loyalties of many African leaders change – they forget why they’re in those positions in the first place. Some of them might argue that they are “just playing the game.” But the longer that game is played, the less obligation they feel to their people. Once this happens, it is easier for donors to lay on ridiculous conditions. And seriously, it’s not their fault. It’s because African leaders let it happen – by not doing their research, by neglecting their duties, and by just falling on the fact that conditions are “harsh”.
A Glimmer of Hope
I will say that I am more optimistic about African leadership than I have been in the past. There seems to be a wave of change going around – and I think it has to do with the current generation, and also with technological advancement. With easier access to information, many Africans are seizing opportunities that were closed to them before. And on the international negotiation front, a lot is being done.
With the WTO negotiations for instance, last I checked, there has been somewhat of a forestall because African leaders have (finally) realized that they can use what they have (agriculture) to make the best possible negotiation for their people in other areas. The recent climate talks is another area where African leaders are stepping up to their responsibilities. Sure, it may cause some confusion, but I believe it’s making stakeholders think twice when dealing with Africans. Now, they expect a fight and therefore bring somewhat better options to the table.
I believe that African leaders have a lot to offer. And now is a great time to do our homework and strive for the interest of Africans. Donors will always have conditions. But the “harshness” of those conditions are dependent on our leaders’ willingness to fight in the interest of their people. Until the necessary signatures are placed on the document, there is still an opportunity to strive for the best deal possible.
Jemila Abdulai is the creative director, editor and founder of the award-winning website Circumspecte.com. A media and international development professional and economist by training, she combines her business, communications and project management expertise with her strong passion for Africa. Besides writing and reading, she enjoys travel, global cuisine, movies, and good design.