William Easterly, an economics professor at NYU, has an excellent column in Monday’s Washington Post titled, “The West Can’t Save Africa”. Easterly points out that 2005 has been a year where Western charitable efforts have focused on “saving” Africa. Tony Blair, Bob Geldof, Bono, Angelina Jolie and Jeff Sachs have lined up to push for increased aid, debt forgiveness and awareness raising.
Easterly instead points to some African entrepeneurs who haven’t gotten much support from international aid agencies or global celebrities: Patrick Awuah, founder of Ghana’s remarkable Ashesi University; Robert Keter, a champion Kenyan runner and telecoms entrepreneur; and Monique Maddy, a Liberian telecom entrepeneur, who recruited Robert into the business. Easterly sees these successful businesspeople as evidence that more private business rather than more foreign aid is needed for Africa to advance.
I don’t disagree with Easterly’s conclusion, but I think there’s another dynamic at work as well. While I don’t know Robert Keter, I know a bit about Monique and Patrick. Both are amazing, creative individuals who combine a passionate love of their home continent with finely honed business skills acquired, in no small part, in the US. Patrick is a former Microsoft employee and based Ashesi on his beloved alma mater, Swarthmore College. Monique has a Harvard MBA and studied at a number of other US universities. Monique and Patrick aren’t successes solely because of their chance to study and work in the US, but those experiences have gone a long way to make them who they are today, as I believe both would admit.
In this sense, while “the west” may not be able to “save” Africa, there are ways that countries like the US can help transform the continent. Paradoxically, they may have less to do with direct aid to developing economies and more to do with open borders, educational exchange and a role in a “beneficial diaspora”, where ambitious Africans come to the US to study and work and return home with knowledge and capital, ready to start businesses. While lowering debt burdens may (or may not) be critical for Africa’s development, opening American and European universities to Africa’s best and brightest may have as great an impact.
As it happens, I was in a meeting with Monique Maddy earlier today – I mentioned that I’d seen Easterly’s piece and was worried it missed this critical role for the US. She mentioned how happy she was to see a media portrayal of Africa that focused on positives, not on refugees, AIDS or corruption. I realized that my view of Africa is being skewed positively by great blogs like Timbuktu Chronicles, where Emeka Okafor relentlessly focuses on the entreprenurial energies of the continent – with Timbuktu Chronicles in my aggregator, I’m guaranteed a story about the next Patrick Awuah or Monique Maddy almost every day.
(Tip of the hat to Cyrus for the link to the article…)