Are African Nations doomed to descend into civil strife?
May 4, 2011, 8:24 pm
Filed under: Leadership | Tags: , , , , ,

Patrick Awuah, Founder & President.

May 4, 2011.

As a native Ghanaian, presiding over a university of 500 hardworking, optimistic students from 11 African countries, I have watched with concern and sorrow as the citizens of the neighboring country of Ivory Coast seemed to teeter on the brink of civil war. Now, as that country inches back towards normalcy and stability, let us not overlook the hundreds of innocent citizens that lost their lives, the civil structures that collapsed, and the huge economic costs of the turmoil.

The international press has reported on the refusal of the leader in power to respect the democratic process, as well as on the deeper roots of the conflict in regional, religious and ethnic divisions.

We’ve seen conflict as a result of such divisions around the world – the former Yugoslavia, Iraq, Malaysia to name a few. Recent civil wars in Rwanda, Congo and Sudan raise concerns. With nearly all African nations containing diverse regional and ethnic identities, does this mean all African nations are doomed to cycles of civil strife?

The real question for the international community to consider is this: What steps are being taken in Africa, right now, to lay the groundwork for stronger civil institutions and lasting economic progress, thus mitigating future conflict? In my mind there are three foundational opportunities:

First, build better social cohesion through education. Educational institutions in some countries, such as my native Ghana, have focused on creating camaraderie among youths of divergent backgrounds. Students selected to attend Ghana’s merit-based secondary boarding schools are sent outside their home region. This builds bridges. In my boarding school, the closest friendship I forged was with a young man from a different ethnic-linguistic group; we could communicate only in English, and have remained lifelong friends.

Young Africans need a safe but challenging environment in which to examine—and ultimately overcome—old stereotypes and fears. When educational institutions offer seminar-style discussions and group projects—and when they reach out to include women and the poor—students learn to build effective teams across gender, economic, religious and ethnic backgrounds.

Second, fight corruption from the bottom up. In a society where the group in power unlawfully commandeers resources, and where leaders show no concern for their fellow citizens, it is not surprising that one group will fight fiercely to maintain power and control. But today, a new generation of Africans has shown a willingness to hold themselves to a higher standard.

Last June, I watched with pride as an Ashesi graduate, in her commencement address, passionately defended our strict honor code, stating, “We have come from a background that has taught us that it was right to get by and wrong to get caught. However, for us, it’s time to say enough is enough!”

Third, foster a robust, diversified economy, where initiative and entrepreneurship are rewarded. In a society where a fixed set of resources provides all the wealth, or where personal connections are the only way to prosper, suspicion and competition between groups is nearly inevitable. Sadly, many young Africans grew up seeing only one obvious path to prosperity—to join a corrupt government bureaucracy. However, my experience has shown that today’s young Africans, if given the skills to think critically and address complex problems, become eager to forge new paths to prosperity.

I am mindful that in my classrooms sit potential future leaders of this continent. It is important that we give our students the tools to prevent another crisis like the one which unfolded in Ivory Coast. If we want to ensure that Africa is not doomed to endless cycles of corruption and strife, we must go beyond giving our students a narrow technical education; we must nurture their moral imagination, teach them to respect their fellow citizens, and to develop creative solutions to Africa’s challenges.

My experience gives me great hope that young Africans can become the homegrown, ethical citizens who will bring lasting peace and prosperity to their home continent. After all, over 95% of the diverse graduates of our university have chosen to stay in Africa and have found meaningful work here. For the sake of Africa’s future, we owe it to this rising generation of African citizens to give them the skills and courage they’ll need to set Africa on a better course.


Homegrown leadership is key to development in sub-Saharan Africa
September 20, 2010, 10:18 pm
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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.

By Peter Woicke

Special to The Seattle Times

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.