ABDULAI: Africa Will Continue Battle Against Poverty Until Shift In Thinking

Abdulai=01For many years, no other country from any other region has been able to break into the league of the world’s ten poorest countries dominated by Africa countries. Despite various interventions, including those of the World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF) as well as, other sub-regional economic groups, the situation remains endemic in these countries: Malawi, Burundi, Central African Republic, Niger, Liberia, Madagascar, Democratic Republic of Congo, The Gambia, Ethiopia and Guinea. Various studies and economic discussions seem to have largely left these countries untouched, even as many other African countries are barely on the fringe of joining the world’s ten. What then is left for the continent, as well as, other global stakeholders to do in changing this narrative? Prof. David Abdulai is former CEO of the University of South Africa (UNISA) Graduate School of Business Leadership, Midrand, South Africa, and currently the president and CEO of the African Graduate School of Management and Leadership, Accra, Ghana. He spoke to KAMAL TAYO OROPO on why the African poverty situation remains unchanged despite the continent posting one of the fastest economic growth in recent years.

Looking at the global poverty index, the ten poorest countries in the world for a long time are in Africa, what does the continent need to do to get change this situation?

FIRST and foremost, the most important thing to have in mind when we are talking of poverty and development is that it is not only about physical infrastructure and the likes. Development is a state of the mind. Once our minds are still entangled in placed priorities, we will continue in this state. Largely, the Africans have not yet decolonised their minds.

We are still significantly held back by psychological state of mental solitude. Most of the education we acquire are often misplaced. Once an individual’s mind is not liberated, there is little one can expect from such a person in terms of economic emancipation. You cannot change mind, perceptions and attitudes under a peonage condition. If you bring a man from the village, without the proper kind of education, and you put the person in the nicest hotel, he will start rearing chicken there. Most of our people that school abroad have academic laurels, but how well are they educated? The difference between us and many Asian countries is that they pay premium to issues that would make them global competitors and this has significantly reflected in their poverty index. They believe that they can grow just like the Europeans. Yes, they are not yet there, but we have a couple of these Asian countries that are already doing better than many European countries.

The second most important thing is our attitude towards innovation and research. We want shortcuts. We talk about these things in many of the international economic forums year in year out, but we hardly practice them. We have universities and other tertiary institutions that are supposedly dedicated to science, technology and research, but what have we made of them? We have engineers that have never worked on their own cars. When we encounter even the slightest challenges, we run to the West, who most often come to take advantage of the situation to their overall benefits. Take West Africa for example, we have many Lebanese here. Many of them got here with almost nothing, but today they own chains of businesses. They engage in stuffs that enjoy relative global attentions. There is one here in Accra, who sells jollof rice. He puts chicken and some black pepper in it and calls it papaya. Before you knew it, the place became a thriving business. We don’t even believe in our own foods; that we can elevate it into global standard.

In the final analysis, it is the failure of leadership. Leadership in this part of the world needs to rise up to the challenge and responsibility associated with the position they are holding. So far, they have largely refused to rise up to this challenge. We love offices, but we don’t like the sacrifices that come with them. Being in office is not the same thing as lording it over the people. We have seen this attitude across the length and breadth of the continent. Majority of our people remain poor because the few privileged ones are easily contented with driving big cars and living in mansions. They are not bothered about putting anything enduring back; it is almost like everyone to himself or herself. The basic African culture of communal effort has been completely thrown out of the window. All the traditions that could have ultimately worked in our favour have all been thrown out of the window. But no tree can stand without its roots.

Yet, Africa is believed to be one of the fastest growing economies in the world. How do you explain that with the state of poverty on the continent?
I am an economist, I have worked with various international organisations, and I insist: poverty is in the state of mind. If you have a poor state of mind you won’t even see clearly. Inclusive growth starts with the state of mind. My parents never went to school, but the kind of grounding they gave me, made me know that I could come to Lagos and work with a construction company and struggled to get a one way ticket to New York with few dollars in my hands, without winter clothes and get myself through school. Today it’s a different thing. When we talk about inclusive growth, the whole thing starts with the state of mind. The readiness of the mind to challenge existing norms with the sincere aim of proffering better ways of doing things; innovation. We can come up with all manner of economic and developmental jargons and parlances, all those things are fine, but we would continue to suffer if we don’t precipitate those terms on some core values that necessitate change. If you build a house with wrong foundation, no matter how beautiful the house is or in what part of the world it was built, will it not eventually collapse? If the foundation is faulty the structure cannot stand.

When I was at the World Bank, all these issues are not strange at various economic discussions; they know. When we are doing the study on actual dimension of development, it was very clear that the dimension should be the core, if not, every other new system or model you introduced would either be bastardised or it will not just work right, the way it might have worked elsewhere.
But despite all the global concerns, as characterised by these economic discussions at various regional economic forums, why has the situation not changed?

I don’t agree that we should shift the blame unto any international organisation. First and foremost, how do you negotiate or make demand on something when you don’t even know what you want? I remember during the negotiations about the Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAP), I queried why we would go to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) only when you have trouble and you want them to bail you out of the problem; of course they would give you certain conditions and terms. Whether those conditions and terms are on the long run favourable to you or someone else is entirely a different matter.

We should not continue shifting our problems to others to solve for us. Africans deserves better; you don’t go to the IMF only when there is trouble, and you don’t want them to use conditionalities on you? If we don’t develop ourselves; our institutions, our leadership, we are going nowhere. No one likes us like we like ourselves, I don’t have any problem with all these theories, they are fine. But you cannot sustain growth, unless it is built on certain core values.

While we are busy mimicking foreign works, where are the African case studies? Where are the African leadership theories? Who is writing on that? We don’t have Africa case studies. Most of what you use are from America. We are using the same case studies. Nothing is wrong with that, but we need who we can relate to more as Africans.

Obviously it will take us time to grow, but when we continue to bring in examples from Nigeria, Ghana or South Africa or Ethiopia, things will take better shape. If our policy decision makers stop the habit of dumping proposals permanently on the shelves to gather dust, we will make some progress and poverty on the continent would be significantly eradicated.
But looking at Nigeria, South Africa and a few other countries, will you say the continent is generally improving?

I will not say Africa of yesterday is the same with Africa of today; there are some changes, but we cannot continue taking one step forward and take two steps backward. That is the challenge facing the continent. I’m sure you are referring to some growth some of these countries have been posting.

But the growth must be a continuous one; it must be sustained and entrenched. It must move beyond textbook growth. We should have been way ahead. There is so much already achieved, but there is so much to still be achieved. The next stage of Africa transformation would be the core values and not Western institutions telling us what to do. Some of these Western stuffs will not just work here. Even me, as an individual, I have learnt to be able to put in place some of the Africa cultural values, because when I do things through the Western ways, where things work right, I discover it won’t work here. We need to be able to know how to inculcate our values.

I will be very reluctant to say that Africa is not moving forward, but my fear, like I said, is when we take one step forward we take two steps backward. Look at the South Africa you mentioned and see the steps they have taken backwards. Of course, they have all the infrastructure and they could have moved on. But when South Africans are telling hard core Africans that they are foreigners; even in Zimbabwean, some of them speak Zulu, though a different kind of Zulu, but when the same people in South Africa tell them that they are foreigners, you see the mindset is so awkward and backward.

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