Bryan Mukandi
Bryan Mukandi

Africa’s deficit of original thought

In a 1949 essay titled “The Economic Development of Latin America and its Principle Problems”, Argentinean economist Raúl Prebisch challenged the current economic orthodoxy. His contention was that “mainstream” economic thought, promoted by countries that were benefiting at Latin America’s expense, would not lead to that region’s development. Prebisch then went on to develop an alternative school of thought known as Structuralist economics.

Although some of Prebisch’s ideas were later disproved, others have been incorporated into the mainstream study of social sciences. Even more importantly, he helped to lay the foundations for an alternative vision and economic blueprint for Latin America’s development. The lesson from Prebisch that I think is in danger of being lost is that ideas that work in one place do not necessarily work in another. For Prebisch, the development of Western Europe and America was being achieved at Latin America’s expense. As such, instead of blindly accepting theories of development from those places, Prebisch and others encouraged Latin America to come up with its own thinking and ideas.

Prebisch inspired me to track down the contribution of African thought on development. Sadly, the continent is notable for its underdevelopment. It is the focus of the bulk of the workings of the “development industry”. No other continent has as many development NGOs giving aid, conducting research, formulating policy and so forth. Africa also has a good number of solid universities, as well as some very good ones, many of which are staffed by people who could hold their own anywhere in the world. These thinking communities are meant to dwell on society’s problems and offer solutions. A huge problem in their immediate environment is underdevelopment. Why then doesn’t more original thought on development and economics (as well as other social sciences) come from Africa?

There are plenty of esteemed African academics and non-academics who are experts in schools of thought that are already well established. But in terms of new thinking and the formulation of new paradigms of thought on our problems, there is very little that I have come across. That means one of two things is happening. Either our education systems are geared towards training parrots and robots, or, the innovative thinkers are faced with significant obstacles when it comes to being heard. Because life is seldom black and white, the answer is probably that both of the above are at play. Having said that, I think the former is a much more significant factor than the latter.

During my time there, my alma mater, the University of Zimbabwe, produced goodness knows how many chemists, biochemists, microbiologists and pharmacists each year. The country also had a horrific Aids pandemic, but not enough money to be able to sustainably import all the required antiretroviral drugs. By my reckoning, the vast majority of the students I mentioned should have been working on locally produced treatments. That didn’t happen and we, like most of the rest of the continent, ended up buying generic drugs from Indian firms or getting the brand names from NGOs.

One can argue that in order to manufacture antiretroviral drugs, certain levels of industrialisation and other economic factors beyond human capital must first be in place. But I’m not convinced. At some stage, India decided to invest in certain industries as well as in people and they got to a place where they could “bootleg” safe drugs and sell them.

Could it be that while the Indians and Latin Americans have a culture of innovation, we largely haven’t fostered that? In a public talk in Dublin on his latest book, Malcolm Gladwell made an interesting observation. Culture, he claimed, has a greater bearing on the success and failure than is commonly recognised. In his book, Outliers, he gives the example of how the South Korean culture of relating to authority played a role in that country’s disastrous air safety record at one time. When that culture was changed in the cockpit, the country’s air safety record also changed for the better.

I struggle with Gladwell’s reasoning because it comes uncomfortably close to some of the arguments given for promoting racist practices. But looking at Africa’s contribution to economic thought, and specifically, development, I think Gladwell may be onto something. Maybe we have a culture that prefers things that are imported from elsewhere to those developed locally. And maybe that is why those who do innovate and come up with new ideas and ways of thinking are not prominent. Maybe we would rather listen to what someone else has to say than one of our own.

The late Nobel Prize winning economist, Milton Friedman, is quoted as having said,

“Only a crisis, real or perceived, produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.”

The sad thing about the bulk of sub-Saharan Africa is that very few of the ideas that are lying around at any given time come from within the region. Perhaps it is time that African institutions of learning stopped seeing themselves as being in the business of “training” people so they can find work in some company or another. Maybe their basic function should be to inspire thinking and alternative solutions to local and regional problems.

  • J du Preez

    “As such, instead of blindly accepting theories of development from those places, Prebisch and others encouraged Latin America to come up with its own thinking and ideas.”

    Please enlighten us about all the WORKING “own thinking and ideas” emanating from South America since 1949 (50 years) as a result of Prebisch’s
    encouragements. Save us the Castro and Chavez propaganda.

  • Peter Win

    I don’t believe that it is originality of thought that shackles Africa. Neither is it a lack of intelligence or initiative.

    I believe rather that it is blind loyalty and adherence to tribal ethics. Loyalty to the leader, right or wrong, unquestioning… Tribal mores where the king owns and rules – not in trust but as absolute owner, transposed uneasily onto a western democratic model that has different underlying principles. It is this tribal attitude that extrapolates into corruption at high levels and ultimately morphs into the blue-light buffoons syndrome.

    It is this attitude that insists on voting for a newly corrupted Government, blindly; it explains the war between Hutus and Tutsis ; or in Sudan; or the conflict in Zimbabwe – and highlights so many warning signs for SA…

  • Benzol

    @Brian: “Maybe their basic function should be to inspire thinking and alternative solutions to local and regional problems.”

    Some serious truth behind this. A Nigerian taxi driver in London, seeing that I was from South Africa, commented on the various conflicts: “It seems that the Lord gave us sawdust in our heads instead of brains”.

    At schools most kids are not challenged in the “ja baas, nee baas” culture. If the answer is “ja” you say “ja” so you get not into trouble.

    Meetings in offices are very similar. Challenging the boss is a career limiting practice.

    Off course, we can blame the colonial years for this attitude but African leaders are the ones who did not change the culture.

    Where to from here? Teach people how to debate intelligently, listen to the other and do not interrupt or hijack the debate. Use the time to prepare your response. Use the power of silence. An intelligent debate is like playing chess!

    In closing try to come to an joint statement which can act as a bridge between the two opponents. That will force you to think and to think again. The only way to grow.

  • Jon

    To aver that African problem can — and must — be solved only by African solutions means that it’s up to Africans to re-invent every wheel. This is a silly conceit. Solutions to African problems can — and do — come from outside Africa.

    Fetishising “Africanness” for its own sake is unhelpful.

    We’re currently communicating by Asian-made computers running American software.

  • Alisdair Budd

    It is extremeley unlikely that any original thought will succeed in Africa at the moment due to the oppressive regimes current throughout it.

    Notice Mbeki’s immediate running to the aid of Bashir, rather than condeming the Sudanese govt for asking NGOs to leave.

    Which is a War Crime and Crime against Humanity, for preventing humanitarian Aid in a Conflict Zone (Darfur) and Holodomor (Murder by Hunger) for preventing distribuytion of food, and also for denying Medical Aid (Medicins Sans Frontieres) to the sick.

    It is a bit difficult to think up new ideas when you are dying, a bit difficult to propogate them through state controlled media and a bit difficult to get them implemented when the AU spends all its time protecting Genocidal maniacs, rather than encouraging free speech, thought and experimentation.

    And what’s so bad about copying Latins, or dont you think Africa could learn a few things from what they have done with their ex-colonies, rather than what Africa has done with hers?

  • Mwanga Nelson

    You do not need to quote western nobel prize winners to make us aware about what we need or what is wrong. Even africans or panafricanists have been warning us since the beginning of the last century: Garvey, Dubois, Nkrumah, Padmore, Soyinka, Ayittey, Chancellor…
    The problem that we have are rooted in the perpetual mentality of relying on foreign ideas, assistance and way of doing things. Look at your names and my names, the languages we are speaking and all the people you have quoted in your article. That is not the case to most other people of the world. This mentality of eternal dependency must go otherwise we are wasting time. Look at the entire sub saharan africa. How many significant industries or serious business do we control there? They are in the hands of europeans, americans, indians arabs, chinese or japanese. Do we have leaders that can do what Meiji did to Japan, Mao to China or Bismark to Germany? None of African leaders past and present(Mandela included) were or are industrial and economic revolution material for the continent.
    The disease is within ourselves. Chancellor went angry and said: Unlike other peoples, the Blacks voluntarily remained mentally enslaved even after their physical emancipation. What prevent Africans engineers to manufacture cars or build roads? What is so special about me being called Nelson and not Tshaka? How many Europeans, Arabs, Indians or Chinese have African names? We still have a long way to go.

  • Belle

    Thought-provoking, Bryan.

    Perhaps Innovative thinking cannot evolve in cultures that cling to the past. In our part of the world any suggestion that ancient traditions (e.g lobola, polygamy, initiation, virginity testing, even voting for another ethnic group) need reviewing is met with (often violent) resistance.

    Added to this limpet-like adherance to ancestral traditions is the rise of Liberation Movements, ironically born from the need for change, have become obstructive to Change themselves.

    Cultures that are open to Change are also open to Invention. When cultural evolution is forbidden new ideas, by default cannot occur.

  • mundundu

    i would say that peter win is probably right.

    african emigrants to places where the focus is on the individual or the state tend to do extremely well. even discounting for the whole “emigrants are a self-selected highly motivated group”, there are other things helping them do extremely well, such as intelligence, etc.

    but blind loyalty to the clan being paramount is problematic; in places where clan elders say “what you need to do is branch out and do x y and z”, people have collectively done well, but there aren’t that many such places.

    but lack of original thought? no, that’s not the case. at all.

  • Benzol

    @Mwanga: “The disease is within ourselves”. Sadly enough, I do have to agree with your statement.

    As an eternal optimist, I would say: “once you have seen the light, it is a lot easier to find the source”.

    I wish Africa luck in finding the way to prosperity the African way. There is too much good hidden under the ruins of history. But……you have to get off your butts and clean the rubble. No one will do that for you.

  • Sentletse Diakanyo

    Bryan, to challenge a well established orthodoxy as an African is to open yourself up for vilification by oppressors of independent thought. We observed the same happening when the former president Mbeki challenged the HIV/Aids orthodoxy and accommodated dissident voices from the scientific world.

  • Sentletse Diakanyo

    Alisdair, your line of thinking is troublesome. The AU has appointed Mbeki to intervene between Sudan and the ICC; he has not run to Bashir’s aid! Neither you and I have full knowledge of the terms of reference, so let’s stop the mischief making through uninformed utterances.

  • Bryan Mukandi

    Thanks everyone for your contributions.

    I must say, I am very surprised the the degree of pessimism displayed in many of the comments. I think one of the biggest difference between modern Africa culture and American culture is that one is ultimately pessimistic while the other is optimistic. There are lots of other significant differences, but this is an important one because it can be changed. What’s more, studies have shown that one of the greatest predictors of which children will succeed in life is their outlook, or put differently, whether they are optimistic or pessimistic.

    I am also surprised by the prominence that tribalism has been given. Yes, identity is an issue in many African states. It is something that will only be overcome in time. But I think it is important that we all bear in mind the fact the traditional African concept of nation or state is very different to the European one. The colonial project that gave rise to the modern African nation state did not take these differences into account, hence the problems that exit today. This issue needs to be addressed, definitely, but we need to do that without ‘blaming the victim’.

  • Bryan Mukandi

    For some specific feedback:

    J – He played a huge role in highlighting trade imbalances and the problems associated with the impact of global trade on Latin America’s poor. The degree to which the terms of trade have improved from what they once were for peripheral countries is in part due to Prebisch.

    Mwanga – I agree that there is still a long way to go. Surely a good starting place is in addressing our ‘mental slavery’.

    Belle – I disagree. The Japanese are have held on to their culture and still calebrate it and yet are a highly innovative people. I agree that some aspects of our culture need to change, but I am thouroughly against the ‘universalisation’ of culture. I think you can think and innovate in your own cultural terms.

    Sentletse – I think the case of president Mbeki was interesting. I agree that he took on mainstream thinking and was destroyed for it. But he picked the wrong battle. An economist is not the best person to take on mainstream medical/scientific thought. That’s not what I had in mind by original thinking.

    Interestingly, he didn’t take on mainstream economic thought. I am a fan of Thabo Mbeki, and I think he doesn’t get the credit he deserves, but I don’t think his economic or political vision of the country were original. The Renaissance, for example took place in Europe. If anything, SACP and COSATU have been more original in their thinking.

    Your thoughts?

  • Sentletse Diakanyo

    Bryan, in Mbeki’s own words, is the head of state disqualified from debating issues of economics and taking a position because he’s not an expert; what about education? Does he have to be a pedagogue in order to deal with education? Military? Does he have to be a trained and decorated General before he can make decision impacting on national security? Mbeki has been unfairl criticised and often by people who are clueless on the subject they lambast him on; as their appreciation of the debate is limited to provocative newspaper headlines and opinions of pub-experts.

    His economics may not have been original but certainly his government took a position that offended the IMF who wanted to impose their disasterous branch of economics on our government. Originality has its place; we cannot seek to write ourselves into history by undoing what can work and not build on what already exist in order to take humanity forward.

    I disagree with that the SACP and COSATU have been original; I’m not sure to what exactly do you attribute this to, as they hav been reharshing the same Marxist-Lennist oriented claptrap that has failed to inspire growth and improvement of lives of the poor around the world.

  • Alisdair Budd

    Whether Mbeki has run or been appointed, he is there to advocate for a genocidal maniac who is ethnically cleansing Black Africans, and incidentally running a country with a repressive state media and religious control of expression.

    (Remember the Teddy Bear called Muhammed that got a UK teacher in trouble?)

    I fail to see any senior members of the ANC or SA Govt at the Fescapo African Film Awards, encouraging free speech and artistry, such as the film on Ethiopia under the Derg during the Red Terror and Mengistu (Mugabe’s house guest, the ANC “Comrade”) which has won the Golden Statue of Yennenga (top prize.)

    Perhaps if African Politicians like Mbeki were more interested in exposing the dictatorships of Africa in Artistic Dramas and cultural industries, rather than protecting their Arabic Slave Masters from the Human Rights of the West (as “Unafrican”),

    then perhaps more Africans might live long enough to have new ideas, instead of being to busy trying to survive the old ones.

  • Alisdair Budd

    PS one of the films at Fespaco is about “Drum” the SA Magazine during the apartheid era, and the trials of Blacvk Expression under Censorship.

    You might like to catch it the next time its on the way round.

  • mundundu

    i wouldn’t say africans are inherently pessimistic, just as i wouldn’t say americans are inherently optimistic.

    i think that religion needlessly interferes in the worldview of *both* sets of people; the varying level of which is dependent on the country/region/community.

    religion is the opiate of the people and far too many people remain needlessly high and therefore cannot or will not pay enough attention to the minutiae necessary to build a nation.

  • Bryan Mukandi

    Sentletse – President Mbeki was as entitled to his view as any other citizen of the country to offer his opinion. You and I often offer our opinions on subjects in which we are far from experts, having done much less research than Mbeki had on AIDS. Still, it was a politically poor decision, as evidenced by the fact that to this day, there are plenty of people who try to equate his legacy to that one issue as there are those who try to reduce Zuma to a shower comment and a corruption charge.

    Back to his economics, I am still at a loss. I don’t see how far removed his stance was from the IMF’s. But I am more than open to being disproved. As far as I’m concerned, South Africa’s economic fortunes are destined to falter if the rational behind the Mbeki/Manuel policy isn’t made clear and discussed.

    You wouldn’t be able to get me an interview with a member of his economic team … or the man himself … would you?

    Alisdair – I think you’re being unfair on Mbeki. But you make an excellent point. Like Maslow said, if people’s basic needs aren’t met, the pool of people thinking about anything beyond getting through tomorrow will be a very small fraction of teh continent’s total population.

  • Bryan Mukandi

    Mundundu – I think religion in itself can be very good. The way in which religion is manipulated in a given society is depended on the prevailing culture in that place. Which brings us back to culture. Historicaly, African culture probably wasn’t pessimistic. Based on the comments on Thought Leader in general, I think there’s a lot of pessimism out there and a lot of ‘self hate’. By that, I mean that I often get the feeling that many people don’t realise how good things are in many parts of Africa and that with a little commonality of purpose, real strides can be made relatively quickly.

  • Sentletse Diakanyo

    Bryan, you’re not supporting your assertion that opening the debate on HIV/Aids orthodoxy was a poor decision. In what way was it a poor decision? On what basis do we dismiss scientific evidence put forward by so-called Aids dissidents on whatelse may cause the collapse of the immune system?

    The IMF structural adjustment programmes dictates to developing countries to increase their interest rates, privatise national assets, liberalise markets, etc. South Africa did not go ahead with these recommendations as they would have had adverse consequences to our economy; and worse still during this current global turmoil. We would have faced a massive outflow of capital and our economy left on its knees. We’re holding strong primarily of non-populist economy policy implemented over the years.

    If you do secure an interview with the man, let me know as I’d also be interested to conduct my own.

  • mundundu

    i don’t think that the concept of nation or state is particularly different worldwide: the tribe/clan/ethnic group with the most military and/or economic power runs the show. where they differ, unless one can buy the other off, there will be problems. that’s pretty much how it’s been, planet-wide.

    it could be argued that during colonialism in africa, this order was deliberately tinkered with to avoid cohesion, and that the african union and the united nations continually refuse to let nation-states form along ethnic lines the way they have been permitted to do in europe [slovakia, the baltic states, kosovo] and to a lesser extent asia [singapore, east timor] in recent years.

    imported religions [note that i did not say “western” because islam is just as guilty as christianity] that place more emphasis on the prizes awarded in the next life instead of living the current one have been much more detrimental: why work harder in this life if g-d/’l-h is going to reward us in our next one?

    i don’t think there’s particularly self-hate, but hate of leaders, who just happen to have enough money and/or weapons to keep the masses from toppling them to create some real change while continuing to line their pockets and those of their cronies. that’s a big difference from “self-hate”.

  • Patricio Sorichetti

    Thought provoking article!!!
    In my opinion, Economics remains a “contentious science”, and although some Prebisch ideas have not withstood the test of time, perhaps it is not a coincidence that Brazil and Argentina are both members of the G-20 and in the last 50 years show strong improvement in human development indicators, while S. Africa is still lagging behind. Furthermore, Mercosur, inspired in part by the ideas of Prebisch and his followers, has become a quite successful tool in regional trade and development.
    Finally, in connection with the post by J du Preez, I must point out that throwing Latin American countries such as Chile, Brazil and Argentina in the same basket as Venezuela and Cuba is certainly misleading (for instance, Zimbabwe, Libya and South Africa are all African countries, but they are far from being an homogeneous group).

  • Tarry Asoka

    We in Africa have contnued to ‘complian about the darkness…rather than lighting a candle’. But come to think of it – on which intellectual foundation will this home grown thinking about the continent’s development come from? At what point does our educational system start to move away from the sights and sound of western orientation?

    No doubt, if change has to happen – it has to come from within and be entrenched. Our economic and indeed our political systems have to be re-worked with a view to allowing us to evolve at a pace that we can manage.