Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Africa: Elites Bear Huge Responsibility

By Tumenta F. Kennedy*
Courtesy IDN-InDepth NewsViewpoint

YAOUNDE (IDN) - The African continent has never been poor in materials and human resources, but people continue to be trapped in the "poverty of the spirit". The impoverishment of vast parts of the national populations in African countries is a reality the diplomats and elites are confronted with and have to handle in their everyday conduct.

A reasonable portion of Africa's population at the 'bottom of the economic pyramid' does not find itself in a position where it can secure its basic needs. "Institutionalized social security" or public mechanisms either do not exist or are often inefficient in securing a minimum financial base for two-thirds of the population. Even though this portion of the population is poised with lots of creative spirit and unique innovations, there are far from adequate tools to allow them the opportunity to contribute to their countries' economic development.

Hence, their productive potential and capacity is wasted. These wasted capacities constitute what may be termed as the "Sleeping or Death Capital". In combination with the role of the extended family filling the gap, one cannot escape the conclusion that poverty or unemployment is a time bomb for African societies and further contributes to the erosion of ethical behavior.

"If the poor and the jobless do not come 'through the front door'; they would come 'through the back door', often as thieves." It is this dynamics that participants in a recent workshop in Berlin were concerned about. Said one of them:

"At one point I figured that at least, if I cannot give money to everyone of the extended family and the village I could give them some of my skills by teaching them and enabling them to move up but no one came. They wanted money only.

"As an educated person, serving my country, going home to the village, a fisher village in the north of the country is difficult since people will be expecting me to be the salvation to all their financial hardships. Everyone is asking for money while my salary is limited."

The latter comment leads us to the second major hurdle: the functional efficacy of financial services together with safety nets. The reality in many African countries is that the organization people normally would go to in order to get money (financial services), is either non-existent or not adapted to the local realities as in giving funds to poor people.

In the absence of any alternative, the African elites are exerting pressure to fill this gap and perform such functions. Sometimes if they do not provide for the basic needs of the communities, they are often branded as wicked, selfish, or even attacked. The societal solidarity principle based on the moral appeal, recommends elites to continuously act against their self-interest to the extent of being corrupt or collecting side payments.

Drawing insights from what may be termed "economic ethics", a methodology whereby one uses economics tools to solve moral problems, the 21st century African diplomats need to be visionaries and have strategies to rebrand their nations as well as seek to encourage economic entrepreneurship by creating connections for people to start building their own businesses, creating jobs for others, hence making people to increasingly need less government in their life.

This entails understanding the responsibility of the non-governmental organizations (NGOs), social businesses, small, medium and micro-enterprises (SMMEs), and Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in fostering national development strategies.

As my mentor ambassador Andrew Young puts it, government officials should understand that "you can make more money (honestly) from a growing economy, than you can steal from a dying economy".


African countries nowadays are facing the consequences of the 'copy-past approach' that was pursued upon independence in the majority of the newly independent African countries. Institutions were imported from other countries -- often those of the former colonial powers, without the then African elites taking necessary steps to adapting the institutional mechanisms such as governing principles, guidelines, rules of the game, and morals and values making up the institutions in question to the realities of their own societies.

This makes it very challenging to carry out sound ethical judgment on the action of decision makers.

The base of ethical judgment and moral decision making is the correlation of the morals, ideals/visions of a community -- common goals, values, shared convictions, e.g. peace, justice, solidarity, freedom, democratic understanding -- and their real life condition of actions (behaviors of others, competencies, scarcity, poverty of the spirit, competitions, rivals, functioning institutions, self interest, trust etc).

This would allow for an environment, where the pursuit of these ideals and obeying the rules are mutually beneficial for all members of the community; conversely, creating a positive sum game situation. If this is not the case, the conflicts and inconsistencies deriving from designed institutions that do not respond to the needs of the communities supposed to obey them make it difficult or at times even impossible to sustain ethical decision-making and moral conduct for all of the members of that community.

While, at first sight, this might sound like a free ticket to reluctant conduct and neglected responsibilities, the second sight suggests differently. It is the constraint to 'think out of the box', that produces some of the key 21st century challenges to African diplomats and elites.

While the general understanding is that morality and self-interest do not go together, this new generation of African leaders, needs to be equipped with the skills to understand that where "immoral behaviors" are rewarded and moral behaviors are not rewarded, morality cannot be sustainable without self-interest.


On the other hand, self-interest alone cannot be sustainable without morality. In my view, morality and self-interest are indispensable ingredients to "transformational leadership in Africa". African elites are vested with the responsibility to think outside the box of the prevailing institutions and to transform/adapt their institutions -- formal and informal -- to coincide with and reflect their social, political, economic, cultural and institutional realities.

They also have to reinforce institutions to serve as orientation or reflect the "applied" moral ideals, values and conducts of the people. Such institutions will allow for a "positive sum game" when it comes to the pursuit of one's own interest under morally appropriate behavior, thereby responding to one of the prevailing root causes of problems of corruption or lack of accountability and transparency.

Hence loosening the links to the dominant institution allows a new more dynamic institution to form that is encouraged to ‘think outside the box’”.


We need a more charismatic and proactive leadership in the African continent. The present lack of proactive action and transformation with the theory of triple Ignorance x² syndrome (ignorance, of ignorant of ignorance,) affecting decision makers: accordingly there continues to be a methodological ignorance, hindering all interacting partners to incite self-reflection on the condition of action before interacting or taking action.

We don't know, that we don't know, that we don't know, that African governance institutions do not correlate with the realities of the people. The lack of awareness prevents people from taking unconventional action to reinforce the transformation, establishment or adaptation of prevailing institutions.

Instead, enormous energy is invested in fighting malfunctions of a non-applicable system of moral ideals and values. According to the triple ignorance explanation, most African policy makers do not know that they don’t know that policy-makers from western institutions do not know that their proposed governing mechanisms are incompatible to the African reality. Hence, the "social group of policy makers" continues to generate its own view of the world (Africa), developing a thought style that sustains the pattern of interaction.

African elites, as a way forward, have to think and reflect beyond the boundaries of existing and pre-established institutions rather than surrendering at the sight of the non-compatibility of institutionally expected behavior.

Instead of allowing the realities of everyday conduct to compromise one's own moralities or belief system, one has to search for ways to which realities, institutions and their own ethical conduct can move toward the same direction -- win-win: moral behavior as a factor of self enrichment.

Aligning institutions and realities is an enterprise that is unique to each country and community, a one fit-all-solution does not exist. What many Africans need is not a 'handout' which makes them lazy, but 'hand-lifting', enabling conditions, which gives them a vision and a purpose in life that enkindles the creative flame burning in their heart. This is what may be termed 'political entrepreneurship'.

While this is a major challenge, below an example that serves as a concluding optimistic glance into the future of African elites:

A young politician in Tanzania campaigning to eradicate widespread corruption was elected to the parliament of a country to represent his community. Upon assuming office, he was confronted with people from his constituency demanding for both moral and financial support.

While he spent time giving audiences to his people and provided financial assistance to some, he soon saw the 'shopping list' and expectations growing exponentially and the problems people presented him worsening. His moral ideal of solidarity with the people in need soon collided with the limitations of his salary. With people considering his financial support as due in exchange for their vote, he found himself in a moral dilemma between two evils: either steal and redistribute and be re-elected but to be corrupted, or not to steal, not to redistribute but consequently risk not being reelected.

As a political entrepreneur understanding the 'functional interrelationship between moralities, expectations and self-interests', the young Tanzanian parliamentarian was able to think 'outside the constraining box of two possibilities' putting him into the moral dilemma.

He decided for a completely different option: transparency towards and engagement of the community with respect to both, his conduct and the dilemma. Highlighting his salary and the financial support he had given to community members, it was clear that he was not in a position to provide any more funds to any of the community members.

While this was obvious to the community he asked them to agree and sign a petition mandating him to steal (corrupt) the public money to meet the demand of his constituency. It is here that people saw the limits to his capacities and understood the ethical challenges he was undergoing.

Based on this, the debate could be transformed and responsibilities of individuals and politicians allocated based on the realities of the community. While he never got a mandate to be corrupt, he was mandated to provide an environment for the community to unleash their untapped potential. In 2010, he was re-elected for a second term to the parliament of his country and remains as role model for African leaders.

*Tumenta F. Kennedy is co-founder and CEO of the African Business Information Bank (AfricanBIB) (www.AfricanBIB.com), a Social Business Model to promote ethical business conduct, credible information dissimilation, entrepreneurship and leadership with (in) Africa. He is currently the Senior Adviser of Global Ethics at the Global Cooperation Council (www.gc-council.org). He has been the Program Director for the 'Building Global Cooperation-New Alliances with Africa' at the Wittenberg Center for Global Ethics (www.wcge.org) based in Lutherstadt Wittenberg/Germany for many years.