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The Impact of Culture on (African) Political and Economic Development:
A Riddle for Policy Makers

By Eugene Goussikindey, S.J.

A paper presented as part of the 2006 Woodstock-Berkley Center Visiting Jesuits Project, March 1, 2006

1. Introduction

I would to initiate a reflection on a topic that is a challenge for me as an African and, perhaps, a puzzle for the rest of the world. Except for those who visited Africa and get to know her from within or those who have a heartfelt concern with the developing world, there seems to be little attraction toward Africa. For young ambitious people around the world seeking high profile jobs or financially rewarding careers, Africa is probably not top on the list of their choice. China and India are certainly more appealing these days. The vivid images of famine, poverty, and wars, as well as the deep-seated belief that corruption and undemocratic rule are rampant all over Africa have overshadowed the giant continent. There is a growing feeling of hopelessness as many western policy makers have been defeated in their efforts to change the political and economic situation of the continent for the better, leaving wide open as a riddle the question of how to fix the problems of Africa.

I this paper, I would like to explore one dimension of the riddle, that is, “culture” as the most subtle element to grasp and, yet, very decisive for any effective policy. Indeed, culture can function both as a “force of inertia” resisting any change as well as a spring-board that sets in motion with intensity any new beginning. The appeal to culture is a delicate line of argument because it can be used to assert fundamental differences and it can be manipulated to “discriminate” or “ostracize” others. When we explore “culture” here, we intend to learn from some important dimensions that affect Africa’s economic and political development, in order to integrate them in conceptualizing or planning future policies. In no way, do we want to criminalize Africa’s culture for the tale of woe that goes today around every lip. By using our own experience, we hope, this reflection will trigger a new approach to transform from within projects of development.

2. Common Approach to Africa: Problems and Solutions

Before we embark on the journey to explore the impact of culture on African economic and political development, it is most important to establish the facts, to state the problems and how they are commonly addressed. This will give us a secure footing in the overall discussion of development issues and thus prepare our own perspective.

In most private and public discussions on Africa’s economic and political development, the following facts are often brought in the analysis or are called upon in arguments by economists, political scientists and members of NGOs involved in the continent:

  • Half of Africa 800 million people live on less than US $1 a day;
  • Around 80% of the HIV positive population of the world live in Africa;
  • Life expectancy on the continent is in rapid decline: below 55 years in many countries; the birth rate is, on the contrary, increasing;
  • Out of its 54 nations, 34 rank among the world’s poorest countries;
  • Africa accounts for 2% of world exports and the wealth generated corresponds to 1.3% of the world GDP;
  • Africa received 1% of the world’s total private investment;
  • “despite the estimated $350 billion sunk into Africa in development aid over the past 50 years, millions of Africans are now poorer than they were in the 1960s”

These statistics aim at economic issues like finance, investment and production and at demographic issues as well as health issues. Besides, these issues, one has to mention also political and social issues like:

  • Lack of “clean, accountable and open government”;
  • Widespread human right abuses;
  • Corruption and embezzlement of public funds;
  • “Bad government, bad policies and failure of African leadership”;
  • Wars and ethnic conflicts.

The catalogue can be longer. Perhaps, to do justice to other issues of major concern, we have to mention the burden of “debt” and the failed policies of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund which advocates of external factors have been forcefully articulating since the Jubilee 2000 project of debt cancellation.  

Africa’s problems as investigated for the past two decades appear to be internal and external, man-made and natural disaster, direct and indirect. Most solutions proposed are in correlation with one cause or a set of causes mentioned. The following can be a fair basic-frame within which most writings from social scientists, political and economic analysts or commentators on Africa would fit:

  • Work on a comprehensive debt relief;
  • Combat corruption;
  • Promote human rights and democracy;
  • Promote good governance and accountability;
  • “Increase aid and freer trade” with the world market and within Africa;
  • Put an end to wars and ethnic conflicts.

This is what the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) articulates in its vision and strategic programme. Its core ideas: “peace and security, good governance, capacity building, poverty eradication, democracy, economic and corporate governance” were presented three years ago, at the opening of the G-8 meeting in the Canadian Rockies in Kananaskis. The occasion was special because, some African leaders led by the president of South Africa Thabo Mbeki were requesting $64 billion to implement NEPAD. The cost of this ‘home grown’ project raised concerns. Commenting on the event for The Times, Simon Jenkins castigated the $64 billion aid as “the poison” and would rather see “an arms embargo on Africa, starting with Britain’s Tanzanian [£ 28 million ($47.6 million) military air traffic control system] and South African [£ 200 million ($340 million) of arms] contracts”¦ no more construction contracts, no defence agreements, dams or office blocks, no more kickbacks, sweeteners, commissions or skim. There would be no more telling Africa its business. The one help that Africa most needs is trade. It needs Western markets open to its primary produce.” He touched one of the more recent panaceas for Africa’s development: a true liberalization of Western markets and the change of rules in the World Trade Organization (WTO).

3. The Riddle

These facts, analyses and solutions are legitimate and somehow right because of their inner consistency; yet, they seem to come short in transforming Africa. Why? Perhaps, either they tend to blur the complex image of Africa or Africa has a way of evading or resisting change. It may be good to add these other facts to the list we made earlier.

  • Africa is made up of 54 “independent” countries; that means 54 distinct political and economic structures.
  • There are over 1, 000 languages and as many “sub-cultures” in the continent with just 800 million people; this stands in sharp contrast with China, which has less than a dozen languages with over 1.3 billion people. The US, which is slightly larger than China and 3/10th of Africa, has around 296 million (exactly 295,734,134 in 2005) and just two major languages (82.1% speak English and 10.7% Spanish). The political “fragmentation” and the linguistic and population diversity are simultaneously riches and challenges for Africa.
  • The continent boasts one of the most diverse and rich eco-systems in the world, from the world largest desert, the Sahara with 3.3 million square miles, to the rich mineral deposits of the Rockies of Southern African. In between, one finds the Savannah and its world of wildlife as well as the rainforest and the water reservoir of the Great Lakes.
  • Besides the wealth of natural resources (timber, gold, diamonds, and oil to name few that are most in demand) Africa has rich human resources in its very young population.

To understand why the solutions proposed or applied in Africa have yet to achieve their goals, one has to realize that good will from outside is not enough. Africans have to own the policies designed to foster the contient’s political and economic development. This requires greater attention to its diversity and particularly to the multifarious cultural factor. It is important to make clear, once again, that I am not contending that “culture” is the solution. Drawing from my experience, I would like to suggest that it is an important factor or dimension which should not be overlooked. The experience I am now going to explore is nothing but the process by which we come to set up the Institute of Peace Studies and International Relations at Hekima College in Nairobi. This is a retrospective reflection that deliberately focuses on cultural traits as they influenced the process. I would like to divide the experience in three phases and use each phase as a paradigm of how the culture affects a project and its realisation and why we should integrate culture in making policy for development.

A) Phase I: Initiative

For many, wars seem to be endemic to Africa. Resolving African conflicts is indeed one of the main proposals to “fix” Africa’s development problem. Peace — it is even said — is the new name of development. Two years ago, after a long process of evaluation and deliberation, we launched at Hekima College an Institute for Peace Studies and International Relations as a response to the challenges of wars and as a way to tackle more broadly issues of conflict in Africa. In a sense, wars in Africa are not a new; many have been going on for decades. Typical are the cases of Sudan and Angola and, more recently, the case of the Democratic Republic of Congo which some have termed “Africa’s world war.”

Since the late sixties, after most African countries gained independence from colonial nations, there has been sustained armed conflict in Western Sahara , Senegal (Casamance), Liberia, Sierra Leone, CΓ΄te d’Ivoire, Nigeria, Chad, Central Africa Republic, Congo (Kinshasa), Congo (Brazzaville), Uganda, Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, Eritrea, Mozambique, Angola, Rwanda, Burundi. Recently, war has been averted between Cameroon and Nigeria over the Bakasi peninsula, but it is now looming between Gabon and Equatorial Guinea. In all these situations, Africans have counted mostly on the expertise and intervention from outside the continent to understand and solve their problems. For decades, it hardly occurred that a long term solution is not in “ad hoc” resolution of conflict but in a deeper understanding of the causes and consequences of conflict on the life of the African people, on the nations at war and even on the neighbouring countries’ political stability and harmonious development.

The first challenge in starting the Institute of Peace and International Relations was to use these background facts to convince the Board of Governors of the College that, in the interests of the continent, we ought to have a local capacity to understand our conflicts, to be able to anticipate them, and to be able to offer expertise in dealing with them in an efficient way. An initiative in this direction, even though it intended to respond to a local reality, could not move forward if the highest collective authority of the College posed resistance. This is certainly true everywhere in the world. The distinctive cultural dimension that affects a local initiative is that the “highest authority” in Africa, whether collective or individual, functions primarily as the “guardian of tradition.” It is not just a privilege position in the community; it embodies tradition and stands as “rule” and “reference.” Often, they rarely take the risk and responsibility of altering what was handed over to them.

So, the first hurdle was to have the Board of Governors onboard. For the past 20 years of its existence, the College has been a theological school mainly for priestly formation. Without openly voicing this concern, some attitudes and indirect comments indicated that many were not at ease because a new programme sounded like altering the foundational vision of the College. It was important to identify this and engage in a serious reinterpretation of the original vision by showing that the new programme stands in continuity as a service to the Church and the society. In a context where the authority functions as guardian of a tradition, change will hardly occur if there is no sense of continuity. Change then means carrying forward the original vision by extending it. Only someone who knows or can understand the original vision and has the vision of the future can contribute to the reinterpretation of the initial vision in a new initiative.

The other serious challenge was the financial support of the initiative. In a continent where most activities depend on financial contribution from abroad, an academic institution which requires high-cost investment is a burden. In a context of culture where authority functions as guardian, any extra demand on resources which does not appear necessary, as in a time of crisis, is resisted. As a consequence, any new initiative has to show that a sacrifice that puts pressure on existing resources can payback. What paying back means here probably needs to be expanded beyond “financial payback.” In traditional societies often characterized by scarcity of resources, the “guardians” rarely take the risk involved in making “sacrifice” for an initiative that is not absolutely necessary for the survival of the community. Many meaningful private and collective initiatives are discarded because of this fear of “investing” existing resources. It is an instinct of “preservation” that can be positive or negative; one should reckon with it in any policy for development.

Further reflection on culture where authority functions as “guardian of tradition” brings forth the asymmetrical and hierarchical relation between young and elders. In spite of a brotherly dimension proper to traditional societies, the “respect” due to authority is something that affects local “initiatives” whenever they seem to stretch the authority. The asymmetrical and hierarchical relation means that elders — and subsequently since independence, people in authority — are supposed to be centres of initiative because they hold responsibility. As a consequence, any initiative coming from “below” requires “patronage.” The asymmetrical and hierarchical relation can be positive if it is “spontaneously” supportive but, it can also be negative if it becomes entrenched into complex administrative structures where everyone in a higher level position takes advantage of that position to restrain or stop any initiative. Indeed, initiatives can be blocked for no reason because they simply depend on someone’s position.

The asymmetrical relation plays differently in the opposite way when the “initiative” is from the higher authority which is rather rare where the “guardians of tradition” tend to preserve their heritage; often, the contribution from below is hardly sought. In fact, the hierarchical relation does not normally encourage an active participation from “below.” With regard to an initiative from an “authority,” very few from a lower rank in the hierarchical scale feel the responsibility of bringing a significant contribution. This silence or lack of active participation does not entail, paradoxically, that there is nothing to contribute. This is manifest when it happens that some Western nations, because of their financial or military contribution, initiate projects for Africa, even African leaders re-enact this traditional cultural pattern of asymmetrical relation. They would not openly question or reject or redefine the project simply because of the hierarchical context created by the financial or military power. These western nations or institutions can devise “Structural Adjustment Programmes,” request “multi-party” elections as expression of “democracy,” establish conditions for transparency in lending, set up a legal framework for human rights, and even design agreement protocols to resolve African conflicts; African leaders would accept these not necessarily because they made up their mind about the issues but, because they are in a position of “subordination.”

When crafting policy for political change or economic development in Africa, this complex relation to “authority” which is deeply rooted in culture should not be overlooked. Some “white elephant” projects would never been carried out if the complex relation was taken into consideration and one is sure that the initiative is desired, understood and assumed by the Africans. Africa by and large tends to conservatism. The elders are guardians of the “tradition” which is to be passed on “faithfully”. Africa lives by its ancestors’ vision and will. Like an “inertia force,” it resists changes from below and often accommodates changes from above (or outside) for “preservation” — its basic strategic reasons. Integrating culture will also mean re-defining the initial vision in such a way that the guardian of the tradition would not be afraid of prospective danger ahead.

B) Phase II: Implementation

An initiative goes through different stages before its full realisation. For us, one thing was to convince the Board that the College should transform itself and respond to a real and urgent need, another was to come with an acceptable programme that would receive the approval of the Senate of the University. The programme being new, serious discussions were about its content. It content itself had to be modelled on existing academic structures: there should be core courses or units and electives or optional courses. Then, we had to resolve the question of where such a programme fit with regard to the university frame of faculty or department. The acceptance of the programme by the university senate came through discussion for clarification, proposal of amendment and various recommendations. The effort to be faithful to the existing academic model was reminiscent of the way the “guardians of tradition” act to preserve their heritage. Academic models are part of what we received and some scrupulous expression of faithfulness slows our capacity to move forward even when there is no pressure from outside. The desire to preserve our academic heritage, noble as it is, is unconsciously affected by our cultural tradition that tends to repeat itself for “security” reasons. In a fast changing and dynamic world, we may remain on the margins if there is no courage to take risks that any newness implies.  

Perhaps, this was more vividly experienced with the commission for higher education, a kind of watchdog for new tertiary education which oversees new programmes. Here, the experience of the cultural dynamic appears in another light. To review a programme, the commission often has to look for expertise. Normally, its experts are from local universities. For new initiatives with no precedent or expert in the local university, they seek reviewers from outside the country, often in Europe where a similar programme may exist. The procedure is laudable in itself as it seeks opinions and comments from knowledgeable people in the field. Yet, it also raises questions when it becomes entangled with some cultural elements. Indeed, when a local initiative from one institution has to be evaluated by another person of another institution, the old patterns of hierarchical relation are suddenly at play even where there should be no asymmetrical relation. It takes years to have proper feedback. Out of frustration, one can be tempted to have things done from outside Africa. Yet, when a local initiative has to be evaluated from outside, that is, when its appreciation has to be done by someone who has little knowledge of the local context, it is the local responsibility that is dismissed.

In a traditional society or a society where tradition is very important, anything new that would affect the stability the society is welcomed with a lot of reserve. The capacity to project oneself into the future that is often unknown is discouraged because this can offset the existing balance. Bold decisions are rarely taken in line with “trial and error” proper to discovery. We find here some insight into why many things experimented with in Africa have been experimented with somewhere else before. The model of political life and development orientations are transferred from outside because they are assumed to have been tested. But, the fact is, when initiatives are not “home-grown,” they lack the support of a local imagination for a qualitative maintenance and a sustainable development. If Africa has to take to lead in fixing its problems, it is necessary that these cultural elements be considered by policy makers.

It may be sad, but it is a fact that many African leaders do not “trust” the expertise of their own people while the foreign “donors” mistrust the local expertise for various reasons, including safeguarding their own interests and investments. Aid is given with the experts and the material altogether. This may not be often openly articulated, but it plays a role in African politics and economic development. In a world where globalization implies fierce competition, Africa’s dependence on external initiative turns its capacity building into a patchwork. If we dare to approach the idea of “marginalization” from this point of view, it forces us to envision the future differently. To fix Africa conscious of this cultural challenge would mean both trust in local knowledge and its counterpart, i.e., greater demand on hard work, detail in designing solutions even if that involves technical difficulties. The development of manpower and their effective use should be understood as reinforcing the status of a leader and not a sign of vulnerability.

3) Phase III: Consolidation

As the programme started, new challenges appeared, different from the ones encountered during the formal design of the programme. The aim and content of each course were to be discussed with a particular lecturer so that the main vision could become a shared vision. It involved meeting the lecturers and listening to them. With most of them, we maintained a flexible attitude for them to feel free to enrich the course description and the bibliography in such a way that our main goal was achieved, that is, “to train the students to provide instruction and expertise in peace building at a high-quality tertiary education level.” To foster this common vision, requests were always made to staff, and in fact to students of the programme, to offer feedback so that we could improve the programme and the very mission of the Institute of Peace Studies and International Relations. Except for a few quick oral responses to our quest for feedback, most would not come with a written evaluation or make concrete suggestions for improvement.

This experience reveals another dimension linked to local culture that one should take into consideration as one sets up development projects in Africa. It sheds light on what can impede joint or common undertakings. The culture does not seem to foster re-evaluation and improvement of even what works. It could just be another side of the inner dynamism of tradition as lived in the continent. It is not rare to find out across the continent a road build decades ago without any maintenance. It has to deteriorate entirely before one thinks about replacement. Institutions such as schools, universities, hospitals, etc. are built with money from outside or by an active government but no maintenance will follow. A typical example would be the railways system in most African countries. Very few have been either extended or rehabilitated (upgraded) since the colonial time when they were built. I do not believe that the neglect is simply because it belongs to the public sphere. Such behaviour is common in the private sectors. One is content with what is working whether it is at an institutional level or a personal level.

It will be difficult to have sustainable political change or economic development if there is no sense of transforming the existing structure, institution, law, etc. in order to improve them. This cannot or should not always be done by proxy or under pressure from outside. There should be an inner will that drives toward improvement. The failure of the mid-sixties and early seventies idea of “transfer of technology” to Africa as a way to boost its productivity and “catch up” with industrialization failed, among many other reasons, because of this too. When some talk about “bridging the digital divide” or “good governance,” I would hope that we should learn the lesson from the past and pay a little more attention to some of these cultural traits or dimensions which affect the policies of development and political change. Positively integrated into a policy, the cultural dimension characteristic of many African people can become source of sustainable initiatives and enterprises.

4. Conclusion

The overall picture of Africa in contemporary western imagination and even beyond, thanks to the media, is that of a whole continent entangled in poverty, corruption, mismanagement and war. It is often heartbreaking to be a young African forced by duty to experience what image of Africa is out there. Shall we lose hope and join the growing multitude that is proclaiming “failure” at every level? Sceptics think that Africa is a lost continent and cynics think that Africa has to be saved from itself. My own worry, at times, is that a considerable number of Africans are slowly interiorizing these negative pictures of Africa.

For me, in spite of the many “dreams turn to dus,t, I think that there are ample objective motives for people in Africa to “dream dreams” of a better future and to turn these dreams into reality. If we dare to integrate the “cultural variables” that have often been overlooked by policy makers and projects designers into our new initiatives, they will have chances to transform the continent. I think that failure to integrate these variables has been a dangerous blind-spot with fatal consequences. I used part of my experience of launching the peace institute at Hekima College (Nairobi) simply as a heuristic model to explore what I mean by the impact of culture on political and economic development in Africa. Many other experiences have encountered similar subtle cultural challenges.

Before ending this reflection, it is good to re-state some of the motives that keep our hope alive and the courage to dream and to find ways to achieve our dreams. In many African countries, at least half of the population is under 35-years-old. All of them have no direct experience of the colonial period. Most of them are however disappointed with the current situation and are attempting alternative ways to make Africa a better place to be. This is an invaluable human capital. They may sometimes be considered “culturally alienated” in comparison to their elders, but they could also be considered as a generation at the threshold of a new beginning for the continent. As well as being attentive to the cultural dimensions, new policy should always rely on this human capital.

Eugene Goussikindey, SJ

The Times, Wednesday June 26, 2002.

The Times, Ibid.

It is estimated that the war in D.R. Congo has already claimed more than 4 million lives. Many more dead are just unaccounted for and would probably not be accounted for in the future.

Efforts to solve this conflict are going no where and it is almost, sadly, a forgotten conflict. It divided the Organization of African Unity and apparently it is defeating the United Nations as no progress is made.

Both Nigeria and Cameroon accepted the UN mediation and settlement but Nigeria still has to comply and pull out from the peninsula.

Spontaneously supportive does not mean that there is no discernment from the authority.

Through financial power, some western nations have been exercising coercion. For instance, one may well understand that Tanzania does not need $ 46 million military air traffic control system from Britain. Yet, in the “war on terror,” it is a major interest for Britain and the USA to have control over the Eastern coast. They can offer dividends that the leaders of Tanzania are keen to have, like Britain’s support in rescheduling its debts or receiving new soft loans. The real question is: is this “co-lateral advantage” worth submitting themselves and their countries to such a decision?

The idea of trust partially renders the complex relation that the cultural dimension of asymmetrical relation implies. In an asymmetrical and hierarchical society, only “peers” from initiation or age groups live an equal relation. In a situation of authority, most contemporary African leaders would not entertain within the sphere of their authority a “peer” group. They tend to enforce an asymmetrical relation where there is no shared responsibility. It is easier to call upon an external collaborator than someone who is part of the same context. So, there is no competing authority or no claim of a decisive contribution by a ‘subordinate.’  It is also true that the situation of subordination in the hierarchy does not allow initiatives that could appear to be competing: it implies in many cases that even an expert in a situation of subordination would not always tell the truth for fear of loosing his or her position. 

It is symptomatic that those who embezzled public funds never use it for ventures. Most of the time, they deposit the money in a foreign account and use it lavishly or, they buy mansions or build palaces for themselves. There is no speculation in new investments that will subsequently generate opportunity and wealth for others, beyond the family or ethnic circle.