Homegrown leadership is key to development in sub-Saharan Africa
For the people of sub-Saharan Africa to change the realities of poverty, aid must focus increasingly on helping them make their own fortunes, writes guest columnist Peter Woicke. An example is the investment in Ashesi University that is nurturing more homegrown leadership.
Special to The Times
Learn morePeter Woicke, Patrick Awuah and their colleagues will discuss these issues at a World Affairs Council event Thursday at Kane Hall, at the University of Washington. More information at www.world-affairs.org.
An Internet search using the phrase "foreign aid to sub-Saharan Africa" yields links to thousands of opinions on the subject, but very few provide optimism for the plight of millions of people living in some of the world's least-developed nations.
They range from criticisms of the G-8 nations that haven't met their promises of donating to Africa to cynicism that more aid will simply fatten the secret accounts of corrupt officials. The realities, however, are far starker: sub-Saharan Africa remains the poorest region on Earth and many countries in Africa will not meet the Millennium Development Goals.
But Africa does not need to be the "lost continent." The explosion of cellphone usage has vastly improved communications, allowing farmers to gain information that can increase their profits. Microfinance has been thriving and has economically empowered many women who are often the driving force in the local markets. Parents in the slums of Nairobi and Lagos, frustrated by the lack of public education, have created their own private community schools.
More importantly, there is an increasing recognition that "poverty reduction," the mission of so many development institutions and nongovernmental organizations, while important, will not move Africa forward on its own. Rather, Africa must be able to create and keep its own middle class. Such a middle class will nurture and provide the political, academic and business leaders who can engineer real development in Africa. Such a middle class wants its children to attend good schools, excellent universities, and have access to decent health care — things taken for granted in the developed world, but in the past often considered by so-called "development experts" as unnecessary privileges for the elite in developing nations.
During my tenure at the World Bank Group, I met too many talented Africans who had left their countries because they or their parents had no access to these services — thus draining the continent of the talent it needs.
But there is good reason to be optimistic: Innovative, entrepreneurial and ethical leadership is starting to develop that can change the course in sub-Saharan Africa. Institutions like Ashesi University, founded by former Microsoft employee Patrick Awuah, are raising the bar for higher education and educating African leaders with skills and integrity.
What makes Ashesi different from the typical African university? In addition to providing a liberal-arts education with majors in business and computer science, it provides its students with a sense of mission. Leadership seminars, an honor code, and a service-learning component empower students to become ethical leaders. Ashesi alumni are managing orphanages, starting software companies, leading microfinance organizations and new venture-capital firms, to name just a few. As one alum I spoke to put it, "Ashesi has helped its students build an antenna for problems in their society," which they are excited to help solve.
Financial aid from developed nations can provide Africa with physical infrastructure, but it cannot provide leadership — only institutions like Ashesi University can do that. It will be homegrown talent rather than the international-development experts who will finally make the difference for Africa, and it will be local institutions like Ashesi that show them the way.
Peter Woicke is former managing director of the World Bank and board chair for Ashesi University Foundation.