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.