African Solutions for African Problems

This was first published in the C2C online journal three years ago. The link to the original article is here: C2C article. I am posting it because one, the reflection is still valid and two, I want to make a case for ignoring the "experts" for awhile and asking the educatied people living and dealing with the problems we need a lot of policy to solve.

Canadian foreign policy in Africa, as a reflection of G8 foreign policy, is directed towards achieving sustainable growth and eliminating poverty. These goals are laudable, although billions of dollars spent in aid over the past few decades have done little to achieve this. In an attempt to reverse these sub-par returns in well-intentioned aid, or at least to gain some popularity with music-lovers, G8 leaders have turned to Bob Geldof and Bono, for advice. Incredibly, these two musicians appear to have a great impact on G8, and thus, Canadian policy-making and action. Yet, from outside policy-making circles looking in, these two men appear to have accomplished little but to create a new business model for concert promoters.

Has celebrity culture become so inexorable that our leaders automatically turn to rock stars instead of experts for advice on everything from the environment to African development? Does this seem logical? Won’t this just continue the trend of failure of western aid? The question we must now ask ourselves is why these “non-experts” seem to have such a large impact on the foreign policy making of G8 countries. The answer, while complex, might have something to do with the process of policy making rather than any particular policy in itself.

Many researchers in policy making and policy evaluation today consider that the process of policy creation or evaluation is almost as important as the end result. (This is similar to the debate on whether the journey is more important than the destination.) The process of policy making is divided into phases. The number of phases varies from five to seven, but the general idea behind the process is relatively similar from one researcher to another. The borders or distinctions between these phases are admittedly fuzzy in parts, but there is one aspect commonly held by all. The phases of policy are marked by concrete actions of government. Simple propositions or ideas put forward by politicians are not regarded as part of the process.

The first phase is agenda setting. This phase includes problem identification and agenda preparations (deciding whether to address the problem or not with policy) and usually involves the creation of a list of the problems that the government wishes to tackle. Once the problems have been identified, the formulation phase follows. This involves identifying the stakeholders that need to be or should be included and consulted with. Attention also needs to be paid to the other important aspects surrounding the future policy, such as geography, bureaucratic structure and physical and technological infrastructure. This is followed by the actual setting or writing of the policy.

Adoption, the third phase of the process, is first a decision (which is also regarded as a process by many) of choosing the “best” policy to implement and then deciding on the best means and tools to use to implement it. Should the process be “top down” or “bottom up”? Do local resources suffice, or does successful implementation of the policy require outside aid and support? Of course, this also involves the stakeholders consulted in the adoption phase. The “mise en oeuvre” phase is the actual implementation or operationalisation of the policy. Cheques are sent, schools are built, trade barriers fall, etc. All the decisions and plans previously made in the process become action.

Finally, the policy is assessed in the evaluation phase. There is much debate as to the best ways in which to evaluate a particular policy. There is also a debate whether quantitative or “factual” observations, such as cost, should have more weight than qualitative or “opinion-based” observations, such as improved quality of life. Or should it be a mix of the two? A popular method used for evaluation is to measure the impacts of the implemented policy, such as how many people were fed, how were trade volumes increased. These impacts, whether intended or otherwise, can be judged and measured against the costs of the program. Another method is to compare the desired outcome with the actual outcome.

An important aspect in all these phases is the role of stakeholders, how they influence agenda setting and policy formulation. How stakeholders are consulted in the adoption phase will influence the methods used to implement the policy. Will it be better to build a school, or train teachers? The “mise en oeuvre” of the policy should involve those effected as should the evaluation phase.

This brings us back to the role played by Bono and Bob Geldof. At times it feels like we are in an alternate universe. While rock stars are asked for advice, African voices are not given a chance to speak, and worse, are simply ignored.

This essay attempts to remedy this situation and give a voice to Africans; highly educated Africans, who just happen to have advanced business degrees from Canadian universities. It seems like common sense, but it is also backed up by researchers in the field of policy making. The opinions and advice of stakeholders has to be taken into consideration. Africans are the greatest stakeholder in this situation. They have lived and worked and dreamed about a better life for themselves, their families and countries. Since the G8 is not knocking on their doors or sending engraved invitations these professionals need another outlet for their valuable opinions.

An email was sent to five African post-graduate and post-doctoral business students at the Université Laval. In it, they were asked to list four or five problems that contribute to the current situation in Africa. They were also asked whether it was trade or aid from Western democracies, which would best help alleviate poverty in Africa.

Their responses came back fast and furious. They spoke about corruption, aid-supported trade, the role of western governments and the role of nongovernmental organisations. They wrote about million dollar elementary schools with no books or teachers to teach in them and “basic training” courses given to former university professors. They mentioned the layers of bureaucracy for citizens to begin their own businesses and foreign-based companies treating their countries as sources of cheap uneducated labour, when at times the African workforce is more highly educated than our own. They also wrote of little documented success stories, such as a ten-fold increase in the number of universities in Rwanda since the atrocities and literacy rates in some countries that rival (and even better) those of some of our provinces.

Their ideas for improvements were not radical. They were rather pragmatic, not unlike the type of proposals we are used to hearing. They know what is needed, from both experience and education, and yet they have been left voiceless by well-meaning westerns wanting to solve the problems of Africans. Ultimately, they believed that the problems of Africa need to be solved by Africans. Yes, these countries will need support from the west… but not necessarily in the ways we are used to.
One woman and four men were questioned. Two are Tunisian, one Moroccan, one Rwandan and one is from Cameroon. They are experts in international business, innovation diffusion, micro-credit, and industrial engineering. They have international experience in Africa, Europe, Asia and the Middle East. Two are currently pursuing their doctoral studies; the other three have their PhDs but were unable to find work in Canada and are currently employed in Tunisia, Cameroon and the United States. They range in age from early twenties to their late forties. Their work experience ranges from minimal, to years of business ownership and entrepreneurship. Yet even with this wide diversity of experience and country of origin they had similar ideas concerning the problems of Africa and the best avenues for real solutions.

After translating and synthesising the replies of these experts, five main themes emerged. The first was to tie Western aid (and trade) with improved democracy and transparency. Second, western based trade barriers should be removed to support free-trade, especially in the agriculture sector. Thirdly, was a call on the international community to incite African governments to support the economic integration of the continent in a first phase and with the West (and increasingly the East) in a second. Fourth, they wrote that western “aid” should come in the form of supporting small and medium-scale private initiatives to increase educational, business and human networks. These networks will act to encourage knowledge and technology transfer within the continent and with the exterior. Last, secondary and post-secondary education needs to be encouraged and supported. This knowledge and technology will then be used to encourage creativity and innovation and ultimately create jobs in Africa, which in turn will be the only meaningful and lasting way to alleviate poverty and hunger.

Tie Western aid and trade with improvements in democracy and transparency

Everyone surveyed mentioned the problem of corruption. They know that much foreign assistance is redirected into numbered accounts in the West and the money is used to support extravagant lifestyles of avowed Marxists, rather than the economy or the general population. One of the experts wrote (translation), “Without good governance, the aid and trade given and supported with the best philanthropic intentions of western nations will be in vain.” They suggested that to avoid this problem aid and trade-assistance should not be handed “no-strings-attached” to dubiously elected officials.

According to Transparency International’s ( “Corruption Perception Index 2006”, where 10 indicates the appearance of no corruption and 0 indicating the perception of rampant corruption, African nations fill the bottom of the list. Finland tops the list at 9.6, Canada is 14th at 8.5 and the top African country is Botswana at 5.6. Most African countries have scores between 2 and 3. Guinea, the lowest-ranked African country at 1.9, is just one rank above the lowest ranked country, Haiti at 1.8.

To encourage more transparency, they suggested that aid should be monitored by the countries or organisations donating assistance. In the language of policy making, the impacts of donations need to be evaluated to ensure that resources are used to obtain the desired results. Furthermore, it was suggested that aid should be tied to increased democracy, the creation of democratic institutions and the active participation in regional and global trade organisations and treaties.
Improvements in transparency and democracy would need to be monitored by global organisations through a system of measures and benchmarks that will allow for comparison and targeted improvements. This would also need to be accompanied through strong encouragement by Western nations and international organisations to increase the democratic nature of political systems and the business environment.

Remove trade barriers to African goods and end Western farm subsidies

Agriculture is heavily subsidised by Northern countries. However, agriculture is a natural source of wealth and job creation (and at the same time alleviate dependency on western crops) for almost the entire continent. If my ancestors arrived at farming wheat on the prairies of Canada at the turn of the century, then Africans can farm in the Sub-Sahara. According to the UN agriculture supports 70% of the workforce. Yet, these workers and their organisations need a ready and accessible market for their crops. An increased market potential will also encourage African-produced agricultural innovations as farmers will be encouraged to become more organised and efficient. The West can provide this market and the training for people to invent and innovate given their local conditions.

An expert wrote quite simply, “Stop subsidizing agriculture in developed countries and lift barriers to the entry of African products.” We hear the importance of this in the media all the time. Western politicians pledge to do this, yet as was mentioned earlier, pledges and pronunciations do not equal policy. Real effort will need to be made in this area to ensure that free-trade is not just talked about, but implemented as policy as well.

Aid, given in the form of Western grown agricultural products, also increases the dependency of African nations on foreign food stuffs. In this instance, the opinion of the experts was universal; trade needs to replace aid in agriculture. This also includes encouraging trade between countries in Africa.

Support economic integration of the continent

Economic integration of the continent will be important for any African based solution to end poverty. People and countries will be able to feed themselves and deliver aid where it is needed when there is job creation and healthy, thriving economies. A barrier to this is the strong tribal influence that is evident throughout much of the continent. While these influences will never disappear, its negative impact can be lessened with incentives for tribes to cooperate and collaborate. An expert wrote, “Gear foreign aid and trade towards promotion of democratic systems and economic integration. African Union should get support as en entity. Regional organizations should be preferred to small and less viable economic countries.” Again, let Africans themselves have a say in possible solutions. Without their support, no policy can be successfully implemented.

Moreover, as the informal or underground economy is so large in these countries, it creates instable and fragile economies. Western help is also needed in creating the financial and judicial infrastructure necessary to support local and trans-African business. Trade barriers between countries need to be removed (again, use incentives if necessary). These infrastructures will be needed to assist economic integration with the rest of the world. In a global economy, Africa will also need to integrate its economy with the West and increasingly the East.

A policy that supports integration will require the proper infrastructure, specific means and tools with which to implement this. Even though action is needed, consultation and planning is required so that monies and efforts are not expended fruitlessly.

Support trans-continental networks

As the experts are all in business studies they all mentioned that support for local business initiatives was vital. This included support for Western small and medium sized enterprises to enter into joint ventures with small and medium sized enterprises in Africa. This would support technology and knowledge transfer and in turn create jobs in both the North and the South.

The experts mentioned that there are many Africans with education (including many with MBAs from Western universities) and drive, but that internationally sponsored programs are not there to support their initiatives. Or, if the programs are there they are not targeted at the people with the capacity to do something with the funds and opportunities that are provided.

Increasingly, healthy and diverse networks are regarded as key to sustainable innovation and growth in nations and industries. Networks are made up of both strong ties, such as between a customer and supplier, and weak ties, such as between members of the same business organisation. Diversity in the biotechnology network, as been cited as one of the reasons why there is a seemingly unending supply of innovative ideas and medical breakthroughs. The formal and informal networks in this industry include universities, start-ups, established pharmaceutical companies and suppliers.

Western “aid” should come in the form of supporting small and medium-scale initiatives to increase educational, business and human networks to encourage knowledge and technology transfer and create jobs in Africa. As one expert wrote, “Foreign aid portion devoted to trade should be increased to let African entrepreneurs gain more knowledge of developed markets, penetrate them, thus creating employment at home.”

Support secondary and post-secondary education

Of course, as the consulted experts have invested much time and effort into their education, this was an especially important aspect for them. For example, one expert wrote that, “Funds devoted to higher education should be increased especially in technology, economics and business to create a knowledge-based economy in Africa. For the last decades, donors including the World Bank have been funding primary schools.” Another wrote that, the education system in Africa in need of repair, and that Western support would be very valuable in this area.

Some concrete solutions on a more local level were also suggested. Funding agencies, such as the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, should encourage and support joint research projects between Canadian researchers and researchers from developing nations. Another suggestion was that Canadian universities should be encouraged to offer internet-based courses to developing countries.


As the global knowledge economy turns into an economy based on innovation and creativity, increased education, coupled with practical experience, will go a long way in the creation of African based solutions for African problems. If there are not people trained in these countries to create the infrastructures and business environment necessary to implement Western policies then provide the necessary economic and business education. Offer full scholarships to Western universities on a merit based system. Have this system run by Western organisations so that the best and the brightest have a chance to learn and bring back their knowledge to improve the economies and well-being of their fellow citizens.

If policy making is a process that involves stakeholders at the different phases, then it should be obvious when and how Africans can support of foreign policy making and implementation. In the words of one of the consulted experts, “Educated Africans living abroad should have a say in designing and implementing both foreign aid and trade policies. This potential remains untapped in terms of expertise.”

Returning to the question posed at the beginning of this essay. Why do non-experts appear to have such a large impact on the foreign policy making of G8 countries? Why, when there are thousands of Africans with education and experience ready with ideas concerning the problems (agenda setting), concerning the most appropriate stakeholders to include in the process (formulation), planning the best methods and tools to use and the ones that are missing (adoption), being there to oversee the implantation (mise en oeuvre), and finally developing unique ways in which to evaluate the impact of a given policy (evaluation).

The main theme that can be drawn from the experts was a need to create healthy mixed economies. Economies built on the savoir faire of the farmers coupled with the business knowledge and experience of western trained entrepreneurs. A democratic, transparent business, political and legal infrastructures will need to be built and strengthened. Here, Canada and the West can help through directed aid to encourage SME creation and human resources to help Africans establish free markets and democracies in their countries.

However, solutions will have to be developed and supported by Africans for Africans… much as the Prairie farmers did one hundred years ago when they came with farming know-how from Western Europe to develop the Prairies. Years of well intentioned, but misdirected aid has contributed to the current situation. Bono and Bob Geldof are only concerned with the short term. Policy should be concerned with the long term. So please, listen to Africans… they are the real experts. And create policies that help create business, encourage trade, build infrastructures, create networks, and educate. All of which will support the long-term creation of sustainable development and growth.

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