Africa Development: Lopsided Priorities?
In a recent visit to Kenya, President Yoweri Museveni (Uganda) emphasized the need to focus on electricity as the first priority towards putting African nations on the growth path. He was discussing Uganda’s plan to produce over 3 times the electricity the country requires. Asked why that much, his answer was: “Why not?” The president was talking at a session hosted by Mindspeak, a Nairobi based business club headed by Aly Khan Satchu.
|Preying on the African mind or feeding it? Photo courtesy|
In his three hour speech and Q&A session, the president did not mention the plans he has for Ugandan citizens. Many questions lingered in my mind; not just about Museveni, but the plethora of African leaders who have driven African nations to great economic letdown. Can African nations thrive purely by adopting western growth plans? Can we fully ignore the role played by skilled Africans? Is infrastructure enough to turn tables on Africa’s growth? Are leaders really focusing on key growth points in transforming economies? Is there one single switch to transforming Africa?
During periods of uncertainty, leaders focus on quick fix solutions; in times of plenty, they sit and steal from the public coffers. During elections, they stand in front of the masses and tell lies. While the ordinary citizen suffers the effects of their undoing, they make more promises, creating a cycle of wish and want. Before we know it, the masses already have a small bribe to cast the vote in their favor.
Is infrastructure development a vain strategy in growing Africa? Don’t good roads attract investments and empowered people provide the much needed labor force to steer industrial growth? What happens when governments get the equation on infrastructure right… and all wrong on labor?
In the ongoing road construction project in Kenya for example, the Kenyan government, through AfDB and World Bank’s financing procured Chinese personnel to build major highways. Both labor and machinery were sourced from Chinese engineering firms. On the same wavelength, Museveni recently procured Kenyan personnel from the Railway Training Institute (RTI) to help build the line connecting Uganda to its neighboring eastern countries. Arguing his point, the president compared several quotes he had received from British firms amounting to hundreds of million dollars and the few from his local engineers worth just a few millions.
In both these examples, two factors are seemingly at play: quality of work and cost implications. Arguably, the British would do a better job than the Chinese would or the Kenyan personnel but the budget implications tell a different story altogether. But where are we at that? The Chinese will build the roads and leave. In 2050, are we going to do the roads ourselves or we will call the Chinese to rebuild them?
Back to infrastructure; will good roads immediately feed the rural poor or subject them to exploitation by investors, and politicians? Fundamentally, the latter is true. Can we therefore conclude that our planners are failing to focus on the basic starting point in achieving its goals? That being the case, what really is the basic starting point in achieving this? The main driver to Africa’s growth is the ability to push the strategy to the masses. But remember that you cannot empower a hungry population. For Africa to advance, stakeholders must first feed the population, and then empower them to ensure that macro economic factors are driven from within. Education is the only way to empower the population.
It is noteworthy that the service industry still remains the major economic driver for most developed nations accounting for upto 60 percent of GDP for such nations. Accordingly, developing nations have ditched agriculture in droves and embraced services in order to drive their economies. But there is still a mismatch- why, for example is the Maasai still not able to make use of his huge tracts of land in the Mara- just a stone throw away from one of the 8 Wonders of The World? Can the same Maasai afford one meal a day even with the large herd of cattle? Certainly not. Sadly, several generations will come and go even after him- why? Because the importance of education for a progressive society has not been stressed upon. And if it was, the kids still wouldn’t go to school - for lack of that one meal during their lunch break.
If you took a tour across Africa, perhaps the technological contrasts would shock you. I recently sat next to a lady at a forum in a city’s 5 Star Hotel. The thirty something year old had a second generation IPAD (only weeks in the market), a Blackberry and an I-Phone. That is not forgetting the MAC Book that she had just placed on the floor for lack of adequate space for all the tech gadgets. A few days later, I was travelling to visit primary school children in the outskirts of Machakos- Kenya. Amazingly, some of them have never seen a computer- not even in a magazine. Did we just say that the introduction of BPO centers will help such children contribute to the national economy- earning some extra cash through data entry? Yes we did, but by the time that materializes, a decade will have lapsed.
The computer aside- majority of the children still have to study under the tree, use one exercise book for up to 5 subjects and at times, share pencils. For majority of them, class will only run for as long as the last meal they had can take them- after which they have to walk back home under the scorching sun- bare footed. To make the picture even bleaker, the teachers in these schools have never used a computer, some just have an idea of what its used for.
Will maintaining the status quo create the next generation of leaders? Aren’t our leaders giving too little and expecting too much? Will doing roads alone transform this high potential nation into Vision 2030? Will the ordinary Kenyan living on less than one dollar a day emerge out of poverty? At least not with the high illiteracy levels.
Just drawing back to the Chinese model, one fact is outright; the government empowered the civil society to focus on fighting poverty and to actively engage in provision of education while it (the government) focused on fast tracking infrastructure development. That way, the level of national participation was all rounded- Chinese labor, local materials and ready internal market. Don’t forget that an educated population will support its own factories too.
Isn’t it time that African leaders stopped dreaming about self interests, space missions, huge exhibitionist projects and focused on the key growth drivers? Will putting in funds into initiatives like the CDF which have grossly been mismanaged and abused by MPs on ghost projects propel this nation forward? It is time we re-examined our priorities- a strong foundation for this nation only lies in an educated and fed young population.
Emerging Africa Capital.
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