Telling the African Story by Komla Dumor

This is a refreshing and rather eloquent articulation of how I feel (and I am sure many other Africans) feel about the coverage of African issues in the media. By far the best 20 mins I have spent on Youtube lately!

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“international community” (some) vs. africans

I borrowed this word cloud from a friend’s page on Facebook. Rather accurate reflection (in my view/experience) of the discrepancies between language used within international community and language used by African youth, entrepreneurs, and members of the Diaspora

Thoughts welcome!

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McKinsey “Education to Employment” Report – Commentary

Hello World!

First of all, apologies to those of you who actually read the blog description and had been expecting another post within a couple of weeks or a month. My life took an interesting turn towards the middle of December 2012, which explains my silence of the past two months. I will not get into details but I promise to henceforth try my hardest to post at a consistent rate, even if I am simply sharing materials borrowed from other places. That being said, part of the reason for my silence is also the fact that I had been pondering on the topic I wanted to cover next. I could not settle on anything, given the plethora of information I digest and the wide range of issues I am interested in within international development. So, today I am just going to provide a quick commentary on a report I came across some days ago.

In a recent study, Education to Employment  The Center for Government at McKinsey and Company attempted to answer interesting questions about youth employment around the world: How can a country successfully move its young people from education to employment? What are the problems? Which interventions work? How can these be scaled up? The authors essentially conducted 25 case studies of “education to employment” programs and surveyed 8,000 stakeholders across eight countries (Brazil, Germany, India, Mexico, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the United States) on various aspects of the employment challenges faced by young people around the world. What they generally find is that young people, educators and employers live in “parallel worlds.” That is to say educators and students’ perceptions of the skills acquired do not typically match up with employers’ expectations. For example, while 72% of educators believed that their graduates are ready for work, only 42% of employers, and 45% of youth themselves did. Another interesting finding is only about half of youth believes that post-secondary education improves their employment opportunities.

This report provides some insightful information on a very important topic that is at the center of development issues. However, I deplore something in this study. It is hardly representative of the world we live in. Yes, read the list of countries selected again: not a single one of them is located in Sub-Saharan Africa. I find that particularly troublesome as in a previous article, a McKinsey contributor was specifically pointing out that 62% of people in the sub-region are under 25 years of age. Africans know this reality too well: the future of the continent literally lies in the hands of its young people. But this reality is especially salient for Sub-Saharan Africa. I am dumbfounded to say the least that not a single country of the sub-region would be included in a study of this caliber.

Another issue with this study I would say is that it seems to be focused on secondary education and lower levels of post-secondary education whereas a case could be made for the quasi-necessity of higher levels of post-secondary education in this day and age. I mean, even developed countries incessantly remind their young people that a high school degree no longer suffice to make a good living. In fact, I believe that a great challenge for many countries in Sub-Saharan Africa in the next few decades is effectively harnessing their higher education sector. In many cases, African higher education systems were originally designed for immediate post-colonial administrative needs. The problem now is that political and economic landscapes have evolved on the continent but many have not adapted curriculums accordingly. Thus, higher education institutions are serving a very different type of students that they did in the post-independence years.

To return to the original question asked in this report: “how can a country successfully move its young people from education to employment?” I say: recognizing the crucial role of higher education and doing something about it.

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Ashesi University…a “new beginning” for higher education in Africa?

“The university must become a primary tool for Africa’s development in the new century. Universities can help develop African expertise; they can enhance the analysis of African problems; strengthen domestic institutions; serve as a model environment for the practice of good governance, conflict resolution and respect for human rights, and enable African academics to play an active part in the global community of scholars”                                                                                                        Koffi Annan

This past summer I stumbled upon Patrick Awuah’s article on Ashesi University (AU), which he founded in 2002.  After successful studies at Swarthmore College and a gainful career at Microsoft, this Ghanaian man took a leap of faith to spearhead the development process in his native country. Ashesi (i.e. “new beginning”) was his solution for the enduring lack of African leadership and pervasive corruption observed in a number of African countries. AU’s  mission is to train a new generation of  entrepreneurial business leaders, with an emphasis on ethical values and the sense of common good. 

First of all, let me just say, every time I find out about something like this I always wonder “but  how come I didn’t know about this?” I really believe that innovative solutions, especially those initiated by Africans (inside and outside the continent) deserve much more attention than they are getting right now and really need to be widely disseminated. In two years of studying the international development literature, keeping up with major dissemination outlets, and attending conferences and related events, I have found that highlights of novel approaches such as this one have been more the exception than the rule. That is unfortunate, as this is the kind of solution that really gets at the root of the problem.

Ashesi University is a prime example of the kind of change I have been longing to witness in Africa. As of 2012, 95 percent of their 369 graduates chose to stay in Africa and lead change in various sectors from Corporate Banking to Microfinance, to Information Technology. I have to say that again, 95  out of every 100 graduates decided to put their knowledge and skills to work for a better Africa. What is even more commendable is the fact that many of Ashesi graduates are Africans from other countries (Gambia, Sudan, and Nigeria to name a few) who then establish or work in businesses in their home countries. These people use an education acquired on African soil to improve conditions of life on African soil . It is only fair to believe that this approach has the potential to be so much more effective than the use of “development experts advice.” I am not suggesting that Jeffrey Sachs, William Easterly, Paul Collier and the rest have nothing to teach us about what will work for our countries. Rather, I am trying to draw attention to importance of homegrown solutions for African development.

Educating a new generation of dedicated and virtuous leaders will most certainly be key to improving Africans’ capabilities to tackle the major social problems that are impeding progress. With Ashesi University, Patrick Awuah is definitely ahead of the curve in making that transformation happen. We can only hope to see other Africans replicating his model or scaling it for greater impact!

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Development…sure…but what is it anyways?

I am glad you asked! When I decided to major in economics in undergrad, the fundamental issue of income disparities across individuals and countries in the world is what drove my interest in the subject. Unfortunately, I came out of that journey with more questions than answers – number one reason I decided to pursue graduate studies. What do these people really mean when they talk about “Development”? Well my experience has been that the term has a very fuzzy meaning depending on who you talk to or who you read. For a very long time I myself did not quite grasp the difference between the many phrases associated with “international development”. In the spirit of clarification then, I’d like to make sure we are aware of the following distinctions:

Economic Development: This view of development is driven mostly by established macro-economic indicators. This is probably the most universal perception of development I have come across. And this is not surprising as “economic” progress has traditionally been driven by economic metrics such as Gross Domestic Product (GDP), Gross National Income (GNI), inflation and growth rates and all that neoclassical economics hoopla. But I think that by focusing on these metrics, we miss a huge part of the story. Sure, we want to see African countries GDPs and global competitiveness soar, but how do we know that higher country level income implies higher standards of living for people?

Human Development:  This paradigm of development is the brainchild of the Indian Economist Amartya Sen. Owing to his dual background in philosophy and economics, Sen envisioned development that goes beyond material income to include “capabilities” and “functionings.” Simply put, we should be thinking more carefully about what people are able to do (and how they are able to live) with what they have, rather than only focusing on increasing what they have. You have probably heard about the Human Development Index published annually by the United Nations Development Programme (or if you haven’t go here). This index, created by Sen and Haq, includes life expectancy, education and income to reflect this broader vision of well-being.

Human Security: This is essentially the paradigm promoted by the United Nations in the post cold war era to emphasize the necessity for more humane vision of the world. A world in which, in their words, every human being could be free from want and free from fear . One of the justifications put forward for this view is that many of the issues plaguing developing countries are related to lack of basic needs (e.g. when you are poor and you have a choice between working for a warlord and scraping the bottom of the barrel to make a living you will probably go with the former). I see this vision the world as primarily idealistic and driven by the need for international institutions, namely the UN, to constantly seek silver-bullet solutions for “the poor”. While this philosophy, as well as initiatives such as the Millennium Development Goals are noble, their practicality is less tangible.

So what?

One thing I have learned in graduate school is the importance of being up-front with what we mean by the phrases that we use. Because I am calling this blog “pieces of development”, I figured I’d be clear about what I mean by development. Personally, I am much more interested in  human development  as I believe it is the framework that most accurately conveys an idea of development that is people-centered and achievable. Hence, I will most likely put more emphasis on the “pieces” that promote this framework.

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