Monday, June 25, 2007

The Africa You Don't Hear About?

This post was initially an email sent to us from Nnamdi Awa-Kalu (thanks Nnamdi!) but we decided to share it on the Beat because of the interesting issues it raised. Is it OK to promote the general picture of "the suffering Africans" in order to garner sympathy and aid from the West? Are they (we) essentially "pimping" us (ourselves) to the most sympathetic "bidder"? Does it matter as long as some good ($$) comes out of it?


A friend of mine recently told me about a facebook group that was opposed to
what it's creator termed "development pornography" which refers to the pseudo-voyeuristic tendencies of those in the better-off world to display pictures of "suffering" and afflicted Africans to the world to earn their sympathy. Her argument was that the inundation of the world with these pictures- constantly depicting Africa's poorest and illest in the most visually- unbearable poses- will desensitize an already ignorant West to the problems of that part of the world.

I did not completely agree with Wendy (my friend). And our argument went on to cover several grounds of pet hatred which we young, vibrant students in diaspora (who are relatively free of "suffering") have to contend with day after day. These included the general portrayal of Africa as a single body, which is the single biggest mistake anyone can make seeing as our proud but tired continent is the embodiment of cultural proliferation and multiple ethnic identities. I generally agree that poverty should not be attached as an emblem to Africa nor should the West continue to be fixated on the immediate impact of horror stories but I definitely feel that Africa is not at a stage where it can debate such issues primarily because it is so dependent...on aid which is solicited by means of sympathetic stories. And nothing is so persuasive as "a picture of a shorty armless," as put so poetically by Kanye West in "Diamonds from Sierra Leone". With regards to the issue of Africa frequently referred to as a sum of its parts, we are unfortunate that we have to band together to summon as much bargaining power as most western nations can command individually. Chronic economic and political instability can tend to that. But that is not the subject of my writing.

I was overjoyed to see that two Nigerians had received literary awards in the last week. Chinua Achebe received international recognition with a Man Booker Award for "literary profundity" over the course of his career and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was rewarded with the Orange Prize for fiction for her excellent Biafran examination "Half of a Yellow Sun". And the title of the article by Rosie Millard: " This is the Africa you don't hear about "encapsulates my viewpoint. It is important for Africa to find it's voice and allow it to ring loud and strong. It was once said that poets (and writers in general) are the "unacknowledged legislators of the world" and these literary geniuses, with their continued brilliance could deflect attention from the struggling underbelly of Africa so that there is at least a balanced presentation of Africa and its numerous peoples. They could and should become a reflection of Africa's own artistic gifts which will compare favourably with anything and everything in the West, and take their rightful position as African leaders.

Not that this hasn't been happening, but it is important that it happens with
this kind of regularity. Achebe beat off competition from the likes of Margaret
Atwood whose work is a personal favourite and Chimamanda's work was standout favourite for the Orange prize and will probably go on to win a Booker. For her own part, Adichie intoned that: “On TV you never see Africans involved in helping Africa. It’s always some kind westerner. If I got my information only from American TV, I would think Africans were a bunch of stupid idiots...The Africa that you see on TV here is not the Africa I know. Africans don’t sit down, filled with despair, at least the ones I know don’t. They move on with life. Even in the poorest areas of Africa there are people who are showing initiative. There are other stories to tell.”

And it is our artists and writers, our talented performers in growing entertainment industries that will tell these stories in the right context, with the right sentiments and in a succesful light. Let's toast to more of this sort of coverage.


Thanks again, Nnamdi...look out for a piece on either Chimamanda or some more up-and-coming artists/writers in the near future! Also, for more "positive" portrayals of Africa, check out the award-winning documentary, "Africa Open For Business" which seeks to dispel the myths about business in Africa by showcasing ten entrepreneurs on the continent who tell in their own words their path to success.

Friday, June 15, 2007


This BBC News article brought a rarely-discussed issue to mind...why don't African leaders speak out against the misdeeds of their fellow leaders? Why is it that seasoned Presidents like OBJ, Ghana's Kuffour, SA's Mbeki don't have the guts to openly criticize Zimbabwean President, Robert Mugabe, or Sudan's President Bashir, for their crimes against their countrymen? Some argue that because the West is constantly criticizing African leadership, these leaders believe that it's unproductive to go about criticizing each other. Others say they would be "disrespecting their elders". Do you think that this "quiet diplomacy" is imperative for African Unity or will it lead to the gradual collapse of the continent if it persists?



Zimbabwe will collapse within six months, possibly leading to a state of emergency, says a leaked briefing report for aid workers in the country. Rampant inflation will mean shops and services can no longer function and people would resort to barter, it said. "The memorandum is talking about a situation where there is no functioning government or a total breakdown," an unnamed aid worker told the UK Times.

Zimbabwe's inflation is already 3,714% - the highest rate in the world. Some firms were already partly paying their workers in food, rather than money, [the report] said. Shops were doubling their prices twice a month, so they could purchase replacement goods. If this continues, "doubling the current inflation for each of the seven remaining months of 2007 gives 512,000% thus the economic collapse is expected before the end of 2007," said the report, according to the AP news agency.

The security forces who have remained loyal to President Robert Mugabe were also feeling the effects. The report said an ordinary police officer earned less than aid workers paid their domestic staff. It said power and water suppliers were already near collapse. Electricity was last month rationed to just four hours a day to save power for farmers. Just one adult in five is believed to have a regular job. Some 4m Zimbabweans - a third of the population - will need food aid this year, according to the UN World Food Programme.

Mr Mugabe denies responsibility for Zimbabwe's economic problems, blaming a western plot to bring down his government because of his policy of seizing white-owned land.

Friday, June 8, 2007

Remarks of Bill Gates

Just thought we could encourage you in your daily struggles by sharing this powerful and remarkable speech by Bill Gates at Harvard University's commencement yesterday. For the full text, please email us at and we'll send it to you.


What I remember above all about Harvard was being in the midst of so much energy and intelligence. It could be exhilarating, intimidating, sometimes even discouraging, but always challenging. It was an amazing privilege – and though I left early, I was transformed by my years at Harvard, the friendships I made, and the ideas I worked on.

But taking a serious look back … I do have one big regret.

I left Harvard with no real awareness of the awful inequities in the world – the appalling disparities of health, and wealth, and opportunity that condemn millions of people to lives of despair.

I learned a lot here at Harvard about new ideas in economics and politics. I got great exposure to the advances being made in the sciences.

But humanity's greatest advances are not in its discoveries – but in how those discoveries are applied to reduce inequity. Whether through democracy, strong public education, quality health care, or broad economic opportunity – reducing inequity is the highest human achievement.

I left campus knowing little about the millions of young people cheated out of educational opportunities here in this country. And I knew nothing about the millions of people living in unspeakable poverty and disease in developing countries.

...[Melinda & I] were shocked. We had just assumed that if millions of children were dying and they could be saved, the world would make it a priority to discover and deliver the medicines to save them. But it did not. For under a dollar, there were interventions that could save lives that just weren't being delivered.

If you believe that every life has equal value, it's revolting to learn that some lives are seen as worth saving and others are not. We said to ourselves: "This can't be true. But if it is true, it deserves to be the priority of our giving."

...So we began our work in the same way anyone here would begin it. We asked: "How could the world let these children die?"

The answer is simple, and harsh. The market did not reward saving the lives of these children, and governments did not subsidize it. So the children died because their mothers and their fathers had no power in the market and no voice in the system.

But you and I have both.

We can make market forces work better for the poor if we can develop a more creative capitalism – if we can stretch the reach of market forces so that more people can make a profit, or at least make a living, serving people who are suffering from the worst inequities...If we can find approaches that meet the needs of the poor in ways that generate profits for business and votes for politicians, we will have found a sustainable way to reduce inequity in the world. This task is open-ended. It can never be finished. But a conscious effort to answer this challenge will change the world.

If we can really see a problem, which is the first step, we come to the second step: cutting through the complexity to find a solution.

Finding solutions is essential if we want to make the most of our caring. If we have clear and proven answers anytime an organization or individual asks "How can I help?," then we can get action – and we can make sure that none of the caring in the world is wasted. But complexity makes it hard to mark a path of action for everyone who cares — and that makes it hard for their caring to matter.

Cutting through complexity to find a solution runs through four predictable stages: determine a goal, find the highest-leverage approach, discover the ideal technology for that approach, and in the meantime, make the smartest application of the technology that you already have — whether it's something sophisticated, like a drug, or something simpler, like a bednet.

The AIDS epidemic offers an example. The broad goal, of course, is to end the disease. The highest-leverage approach is prevention. The ideal technology would be a vaccine that gives lifetime immunity with a single dose. So governments, drug companies, and foundations fund vaccine research. But their work is likely to take more than a decade, so in the meantime, we have to work with what we have in hand – and the best prevention approach we have now is getting people to avoid risky behavior.

Pursuing that goal starts the four-step cycle again. This is the pattern. The crucial thing is to never stop thinking and working – and never do what we did with malaria and tuberculosis in the 20th century – which is to surrender to complexity and quit.

The final step – after seeing the problem and finding an approach – is to measure the impact of your work and share your successes and failures so that others learn from your efforts.

You have to have the statistics, of course. You have to be able to show that a program is vaccinating millions more children. You have to be able to show a decline in the number of children dying from these diseases. This is essential not just to improve the program, but also to help draw more investment from business and government.

But if you want to inspire people to participate, you have to show more than numbers; you have to convey the human impact of the work – so people can feel what saving a life means to the families affected.

You can't get people excited unless you can help them see and feel the impact. And how you do that – is a complex question.

Still, I'm optimistic. Yes, inequity has been with us forever, but the new tools we have to cut through complexity have not been with us forever. They are new – they can help us make the most of our caring – and that's why the future can be different from the past.

The defining and ongoing innovations of this age – biotechnology, the computer, the Internet – give us a chance we've never had before to end extreme poverty and end death from preventable disease.

When you consider what those of us here in this Yard have been given – in talent, privilege, and opportunity – there is almost no limit to what the world has a right to expect from us.

In line with the promise of this age, I want to exhort each of the graduates here to take on an issue – a complex problem, a deep inequity, and become a specialist on it. If you make it the focus of your career, that would be phenomenal. But you don't have to do that to make an impact. For a few hours every week, you can use the growing power of the Internet to get informed, find others with the same interests, see the barriers, and find ways to cut through them.

Don't let complexity stop you. Be activists. Take on the big inequities. It will be one of the great experiences of your lives.

...You graduates are coming of age in an amazing time. As you leave Harvard, you have technology that members of my class never had. You have awareness of global inequity, which we did not have. And with that awareness, you likely also have an informed conscience that will torment you if you abandon these people whose lives you could change with very little effort. You have more than we had; you must start sooner, and carry on longer.

Knowing what you know, how could you not?

And I hope you will come back here to Harvard 30 years from now and reflect on what you have done with your talent and your energy. I hope you will judge yourselves not on your professional accomplishments alone, but also on how well you have addressed the world's deepest inequities … on how well you treated people a world away who have nothing in common with you but their humanity.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

And you thought we were done...

One last shameless plug for the plight of Nigerian higher education... Here's part of an email from a Psychology professor at Enugu State University of Science & Tech. I had asked her a while ago what her views were on the constant strikes by lecturers, etc. and here's what she had to say:


The strike actions are unfortunate because time is wasted, both for students and staff. Yet the lecturers have no other way of getting the attention of the authorities to the plight of academics in the Universities. Things are appalling, my dear. There is so much corruption and students are cashing in on it. Anybody can get away with a University degree now without working for it. The good ones are so frustrated that some throw in the towel and derail. Look at the world ratings of Universities and see that Nigerian Unversities , (the best 3) rank from 5,600 or 6,000! And yet nobody cares.

Grades are sold by lecturers who are underpaid. There are no libraries. Staff have no access to journals. people are promoted to professorial positions without publications. There are often absentee lecturers who sublet their courses to unathaurized and unqualified lecturers! Tell me why shouldn't the Universities be closed. Meanwhile Government functionaries, (including the immediate past President) get to establish private Universities which are not within the reach of most youth.

So there, that's my opinion. The strikes are in order. But the authorities
don't care.

OBJ said in a recent interview, "there is no basis for the striking lecturers to go on strike in view of the giant stride of the present administration at improving the take home pay of the nation's lecturers." Are these strikes the only way to get the authorities to increase teacher salaries and work conditions? For more information on the recent ASUU strikes, check out this article.

Friday, June 1, 2007

The Afro Beat takes on Nigerian Universities

Following up Kome's comment on the "Who Needs an Education" post last week and given that the state of tertiary education in Nigeria is a topic we're particularly interested in, we thought it would be nice to discuss this further (you can vote on this through your participation in this discussion but we hope you deem it a worthy cause too). In case you weren't convinced by the afore-mentioned post, we thought this Guardian Newspaper article put it in another perspective.

Nigerian universities and world ranking

THE latest worldwide universities' ranking shows that Nigerian universities have dropped out of reckoning because of the poor quality and scope of research conducted by indigenous academics. No Nigerian university featured on the world best 500 universities list. Indeed from the African continent, only the University of Cape Town, South Africa made the list. More embarrassing was the fact that even among the contending universities in Africa, the best Nigerian university was ranked number 44, trailing behind some universities in Kenya, South Africa, and Ghana.

Last year, five Nigerian universities were among the first 100 universities in Africa. This time, only four...their ascribed positions were embarrassing. While OAU came in a distant 44th position, UI, Nigeria's premier was #65, and Uniben #79. Unilag made an embarrassing 90th position. [No other universities featured.]

This should be bad news to the Nigerian government and educationists. It should also be bad news to Nigerian academics who, under the aegis of ASUU, are currently on strike over working conditions. The verdict of the ranking system speaks for itself. If Nigerian universities cannot feature among the best 500 in the world and are ranked from Position 44 downwards in Africa, then there is something fundamentally deficient in the system. What is the quality of research that goes on in the universities? Are there research opportunities and facilities in the universities? If there are, are these research findings published in reputable journals across the world? Does this not re-echo the call of our nation's eggheads that the universities need resuscitation through a massive injection of funds?

Numerous problems beset Nigerian universities. Inadequate funding, lack of commitment, poor or unavailable infrastructure, epileptic power supply, and paucity of funds to attend international conferences are some of the challenges which the average academic has to contend with. In the universities that are well ranked, funds are routinely available for scholars to attend conferences where their findings and contributions to knowledge are presented and discussed. Also, because of the sound quality of research their essays are accepted and published in international reputable journals.

The Nigerian academic is not so lucky. He is entitled to attend international conferences about once in two years. If he must attend other conferences, he is required to look for funding from other sources.

Universities need to be proactive in the areas of management and resource mobilization. Some Vice Chancellors are so parochial that they simply see the position as a reward for many years of service. They then fail to rise to the challenges of the office. Some Governing Councils also fall into the same trap. Endowment funds and donations from wealthy patrons apart from government subvention are other sources of income for universities. For example, it should be possible for corporate organisations to provide seed money, invested in bonds, securities and real property in form of endowments on behalf of the universities. This was part of the intention behind the Education Tax Fund. Sadly, this has become another bureaucratic waste pipe.

The world ranking of Nigerian universities ought to be a wake-up call to all stakeholders, including the State and Federal Ministries of Education, the National Universities Commission (NUC) and the universities.

So how can we solve the problem? I know this is highly hypothetical, seeing as the first thing that needs to be done is a due diligence on the state of Nigerian tertiary education. But given what we know, what are some practical steps that you would recommend be taken by the administrators of these universities, given that they cannot obtain an increase in funds from the FG anytime soon? We're interested in "little ideas" about how (1) we, (2)the universities, and (3)the government, can most efficiently improve Nigeria's universities.