Afromatics III: Mentality Shift

In Afromatics I, I outlined the essential goals we should strive for when it comes to the development of African countries such as Ghana. In Afromatics II, I asserted that the cultural values we hold are both the biggest challenge and greatest opportunity when it comes to building peaceful and prosperous societies.

In this piece, I will outline the kind of political economy that can be a force for changing our cultural value set. Our goal is to create a new kind of mentality among ourselves that will surely lead to the good life.

The crux of this approach is an unswerving, sincere focus on ordinary citizens–the men and women on the street and in the villages–as the source of economic progress. Contemporary African society must shift from our paternalistic mode of development, something that has its roots in our colonial interlude, in which power and all that is good is seen to flow from elite leadership.

At its worst, this leads to the atrocities of such infamous “Big Men” as Mugabe, Amin, Mobutu, Abacha and their ilk. At its best, it leads to a kind of mindset in which people try to get ahead using their “connections” instead of competing on merit; and, in which everyone looks to the Government to provide everything. Isn’t it ironic to see people living in half a million dollar homes complaining that the state hasn’t tarred the roads in front of their mansion? What about those who complain about lack of sewer facilities in their neighborhoods but cannot not be bothered to clean up plastic waste from water sachets?

There will be risks in relying on the great unwashed masses for the innovation and ingenuity necessary for greater productivity, but there are even greater risks in relying on a small elite clique as we have been wont to do in the past. As our track record so clearly shows, there is so much temptation inherent in the African condition that those who come into power (even with the best intentions) usually end up being corrupted and doing more harm than good. I for one cannot say that I would do things differently if I was thrust in a position of such absolute power and could multiply my net worth a gazillion times in one afternoon just by closing one deal!

What we need to do then is carve out a more limited role for Government so that it does less harm; but, and this is even more important, we must then raise our expectations for Government in its more limited role. This is the key aspect of how our politics can change our culture.

Transforming our cultural system in order to do better at economic development depends on qualitatively improving our human capital stock in order to best equip it for the central role it must play in our development.

In practical terms, this means that the state must place a non-negotiable premium on education for its people. Education in this sense is not just about literacy, it is also about civics and character education that aims at producing good citizens. It means educational systems that are organically integrated with local communities and respond to the needs of these same communities. It means quality and meritocracy at all levels of the educational establishment. It is an educational system that transmits the traits of rationality, self-reliance and “can-do” to its pupils. It is one that offers its students hope and optimism that they have the tools to better their life. The goal must be to produce modern citizens with a secular mindset who feel in control of their own destiny.

Society must also place a high premium on providing basic health services, especially preventative services, to the bulk of the population. An unhealthy population will tend to be an unproductive one. Targeting mothers in providing assistance is a strategy that will yield tremendous benefits giving the role they play in transmitting knowledge to future generations.

The other critical priority of the state has to be law and order as well as property rights. If the state cannot properly manage its monopoly on the legal use of violence, it really forfeits all rationale for its existence. Widespread criminality and banditry take precious lives and make it impossible to have an economy that works for the majority of its participants. Likewise, if contracts cannot be legally enforced, there will be little incentive to invest and the sort of warped capitalism that you will typically see is one that yields meager benefits to most people.

Our political class can also play a unique role by helping creating new mythologies around the goals of society. By selectively picking strands from our past that are then leveraged to build new goals and attitudes for the future, the state can act as a catalyst for the creation of the kind of “New African” mind set we need. The sporting, arts and entertainment arenas are all areas ripe for such beneficial social engineering and we can jump start new industries in these areas. Done right, we can build stronger national sentiments, modernize attitudes and set aspirations that drive individuals forward. We will also feel better about ourselves!

It comes down to this. Instead of spending resources on presidential palaces & jets, far-flung diplomatic missions and all the other trappings of the modern nation-state (which benefit the political elite), our political class should focus on making our people smarter citizens and providing a safer and more assured environment for these smart citizens to go out and realize their full potential.

Even under the most trying circumstances most African societies show a high level of entrepreneurship and “hustle” as seen by the size of the informal sector. We just need to provide a much better incubator for these entrepreneurial energies than we have done to date. The results may be unpredictable but I would guess the odds are in favor of better outcomes for most people with such an approach.

The approach outlined above will only be viable in those African countries that have fairly functional central governments. Failed states will need dramatic changes in order to bring them back from the precipice before we can embark on such mindset changing initiatives. Painful to say, but we may need to start thinking about institutionalizing the role of external entities in nation building when it comes to those African states that simply do not seem to have the capacity to generate internal solutions to their problems.

For those lucky African states that have a little bit of a base to build on, what sort of political and economic system works best with our approach on changing societal mentalities. Politically, it is democratic and embodies accountability. The people need to be able to fire their leaders if they want. It is decentralized and engages the community in the rites of citizenship on an regular basis. It disdains the myth of the big man and promotes the myth of the ordinary man. It places a premium on a professional civil service. It is obsessed with high standards and sees meritocracy as an absolute good.

Economically, a winning African state must embody the spirit of entrepreneurship; it will be individualistic in reality while paying homage to the community traditions of our past. It will embrace real competition between real capitalists and disdain the crony capitalism between “connected” pseudo-capitalists. It will be an economy in which home ownership is seen as desirable and is promoted by the larger society. It will be a place in which it will be both desirable and possible to make a decent living working off the land. It will be a society of small business and one in which people strive to work for themselves.

We shall overcome our common challenges only when we believe deep within ourselves that we have the solutions to our problems. It is that unique trait of the human animal to bend the external environment to his or her will that makes it possible to live a civilized life. As Africans, when we believe we control our own destiny, we would have overcome the most difficult obstacle to prosperity.

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