When engaging in African development discourse, I have failed to understand the popular phrase “African solutions to African problems”. It forces me to question what and who is African? Is it all mankind by virtue of humans originating from Africa or someone who can generally be traced to the Negroid race? Is it someone born in Africa? Are “friends of Africa”, people familiar with and passionate about the continent, African? Africans are quick and proud to commend their nations as unique, independent and autonomous yet such rhetoric automatically lumps Africans into a nebulous cluster of an even more nebulous concept. It goes without saying there is no unified definition of African.
Undeniably some problems are common across Africa. But with globalisation and consequently global problems and its countering force, regional integration and regional problems, what are “African problems”? Should Africans still be looking at themselves in isolation from the rest of the world?
Failure to define African problems means there is no “one-size-that-fits-all” solution, a fact I wish development partners and policymakers would learn. Without discounting other leadership solutions, this article focuses on political leadership. Why is understanding the notion of African solutions important? Contrary to their claims, it is alleged that African leaders do not solve problems using the “African perspective”. Therefore, it is key to understanding the current African reality. There are many factors that prohibit the functionality of “African solutions to African problems”.
Africans’ failure to accept some responsibility for about 50 years of sub-standard leadership forces conversation to revert to the source of “all” Africa’s development problems: colonisation. Colonisation is also blamed for the degradation of African culture and Africans’ subsequent adoption of a Western viewpoint. This argument has its merits but China was partly colonised by Japan yet the Chinese retain very strong indigenous cultural values in all aspects of life. Further, an African education, that is curricula with Africa-relevant content (unlike the current colonial and predated education systems), is a farce in many countries. As such the standard for excellent education is foreign, not local.
Those with money send their children abroad; it is no wonder little money is invested in local education systems. Whether or not leaders agree with the foreign principles learned, at some point those things learned impact their solutions. Foreign ideas must be understood, interpreted and applied correctly in any given local context, which is not really happening. One is forced to wonder whether such solutions are truly African. Having African leaders make decisions rather than donors is not “African solutions”. African solutions must be based on African philosophy, culture, religion and values, all of which are vaguely utilised today.
It cannot be disputed that urbanisation (the growing cities and rural-urban migration) has a role to play. According to the UN about 67% of Africa’s population will be urban by 2050. Urban living is conducive to children learning from the streets and multimedia (radio, TV, the internet). Local populations are bombarded by international TV, with the exception maybe of Nigerian and South African broadcasts, which are growing in popularity. As if attaching social value to oneself based on how many episodes of 24 or Sex and the City one has watched is not enough, Africans then mimic foreign shows, but act in sensational ways to increase viewership. Big Brother is but one example.
Modernisation is corroding African culture. How are Africans expected to develop authentically African solutions? Or perhaps the culprit is the disintegration of the (extended) family unit (though in countries such as South Africa the nuclear family unit is arguably disintegrating) where families lived in the same vicinity and oral traditions and customs were passed down. Now children are often left to raise themselves or reared by a host of non-parental forces, thus deprived of the traditional experience of African family values.
I am not a political leader but if I were I would not point fingers because a lot of the above describes me. I am black African by birth (Zambian and Ugandan). I was raised in cities. I was not raised in an extended family. I am foreign-educated, well-travelled and have embraced the lifestyle and philosophies of an “Afropolitan” (a cosmopolitan African, with global exposure and viewpoints, who retains a commitment to, knowledge of and passion for Africa). I studied development in India to understand what Africa can learn from a new global powerhouse and increased South-South relations; I studied politics in the US to understand democracy; studied law in Australia to understand the evolution of common law (which former British colonies in Africa use); I work in Rwanda to understand a development model that works.
As a young leader I take into account changing times (that is conducting research and forecasting scenarios rather than repeating incomprehensible and ever-changing development jargon), compare different models, global best practices and universal values to see how best to adapt solutions locally. Yet how best to integrate those into sustainable solutions remains a challenge. My conclusion is, just as there is no one-size-fits-all in development agendas, there is no universal African solution to African problems.
Jacqueline Muna Musiitwa runs Hoja Law Group, a boutique New York law firm that uses the law to bridge the African development gap through advising on deals that create wealth for Africa. HLG advises foreign investors investing in and expanding into Africa and African governments and companies contracting with American, European and Indian companies. She is a frequent speaker and writer on African affairs.