Sunday, June 20, 2004

The Future Is Ours

I recently returned from Ghana, a developing nation in West Africa. As the first African nation to gain independence from colonial rule, Ghana was well positioned for economic growth during the 2nd half of the 20th century. Still, Ghana was largely unable to fulfill its initial promise due to political instability and poor economic policy. While there have been development success stories around the world, policymakers and pundits are always cautious when it comes to Africa. The rich nations of the world have not figured out how to solve the African puzzle, despite spending millions of dollars in foreign aid and spending years formulating new policies.

There is a temptation among some observers to throw up their hands and declare Africa lost for the next generation, whether due to interminable war, the scourge of HIV, or incompetent leadership. Even among the idealists, it is difficult to know where to begin in addressing Africa’s problems. I interviewed many people about these issues, and they returned to the same broad themes again and again. I hope to explore these ideas in greater detail in future posts.

One Size Does Not Fit All
While it seems obvious that Africa is not monolithic with over 50 different nations, hundreds of languages and ethnic groups, and significant regional disparities in climate, economy, politics, and infrastructure, our media and our textbooks tend to lump all Africans together. If you are lucky enough to read a front-page article or watch a lead news story on Africa, when was the last time there was a report not having to do with war or HIV? Africa needs to be analyzed with its diversity in mind. The problems facing Ghana are much different from the troubles that plague Sudan or Nigeria. South Africa and Ethiopia have sharply different political, social, and economic histories and meaningful comparisons are hard to come by.

Institutions Matter
How do you buy a house in Africa? How can an entrepreneur start her own business? How does a student get a college loan? The answers to these questions are not clear because the institutions that support these endeavors are poorly developed or non-existent in most nations. I personally met a dozen potential entrepreneurs during my time in Ghana, some with innovative ideas, who were unable to pursue their dreams because they were capital constrained and lacked access to credit. Information is hard to come by in Africa, whether it is information about a prospective borrower or an emerging business. Without institutions to facilitate the spread of information and the efficient distribution of capital, it will be impossible for Africa to develop.

Technically Speaking, No
The Africans I met were surprisingly comfortable with new technologies. Even among poorer people, cell phones and Internet access were not foreign concepts. The problem is that technology alone, without complementary institutions like credit cards and venture capital markets, cannot inspire innovation, e-commerce, or other business applications. Technology is perhaps a necessary but not sufficient condition for development. While Africans are increasingly using technology to communicate within and between nations, the impact on economic and political development remains to be seen.

Africans Can Do This Job
Few Africans I spoke with considered lack of foreign aid to be the primary issue facing their people. Rather, many of them expressed the notion that Africans could solve Africa’s problems, if we simply gave them the opportunity. The rich countries of the world can work together with Africans to formulate strategies to combat disease, improve economic growth, and enact political reform. In the end though, Africans will have to execute these initiatives themselves. Smarter, more targeted, assistance to responsible regimes is an idea that needs to be tested and this concept is at the center of Bush’s Africa policy.

The Future Is Ours
When I walked into BusyInternet, Ghana’s best Internet café, I could not help but be awed by the number of young Africans using their services. As I looked around the room, surrounded by flat screen monitors, web cams, and streaming radio, I knew immediately that my future was inextricably linked to the future of Africans. As an American, I recognize that the nations of Africa represent trading partners, a developing market for our goods, and strategic allies in the War against Terror. As a human being, I know it would be tragic to let the potential of millions of young Africans be wasted on war, disease, and corruption. A stable, prosperous, Africa is in our interests as Americans and as citizens of the world.



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