There is an ongoing discussion on the effectiveness of foreign aid in helping the economic development of Africa. One thing is obvious: the results are not exactly what Africa’s development partners have expected, and the reasons are not far-fetched. Dambisa Moyo, global economist and author, contends in her book Dead Aid that while foreign aid that addresses humanitarian needs caused by drought and conflict is helpful, most of the aid given to African countries is rather harmful. The OECD provides comprehensive statistics on the kinds and volume of aid received by the continent up until 2015. Moyo lists the problems enhanced by aid to include corruption, civil conflict, shrinking of the middle class, and the instilling of a culture of dependency. All of these combine to make Africa unattractive to global investors.

It has become obvious that it is politics that drives the economies of nations. Acemoglu and Robinson assert in their seminal book Why Nations Fai’ that the major difference between developed countries and developing countries is in their political evolution. Developed countries have political and economic systems that are inclusive and offer opportunities for most people to create wealth.

However, most developing economies have political and economic systems that are extractive. Those in the ruling class have a strong hold on political power, and use it to channel economic resources to benefit themselves and those close to them. Foreign aid, when channelled through such extractive systems, almost never reaches the most vulnerable in society. We need to rethink the form of aid Africa needs and the platforms for distributing or offering it.

Also, globalization is the reality of our day and age. There is increasing economic, social, technical, cultural and political interdependence between nations. People are more inter-connected now than ever before. The availability of worldwide communication systems through rapid improvements in communication technology and the internet has led to more international trade and cultural exchange. But globalization does not appear to be hastening Africa’s development. The problem is also rooted in the political structure and the leadership culture prevalent in Africa.

The problem is leadership

Some years ago, I had a discussion with Donald Duke, former governor of Cross River State in Nigeria. I commended his vision for a plan to attract large numbers of tourists from around the world, impacting positively on the economy of the state and the nation. I observed that a large number of leaders in Nigeria can’t envision Nigeria as a developed nation, and talk more of mobilizing citizens to actualize the vision. He replied with an illustration: Nigeria, he said, is like an aircraft that is being flown by pilots that did not go to flying school. He added that when the plane crashes, everyone blames the pilot. The question therefore is: where are Africa’s leadership “flying schools?” How and where do Africans acquire sophistication in the leadership skills required to guide the continent into development?

Children return from school in the mid-morning, in Ikarama village on the outskirts of the Bayelsa state capital, Yenagoa, in Nigeria's delta region October 8, 2015. Tensions are building in the swampland of the Niger Delta as an amnesty that aimed to bring stability to Nigeria's volatile southern region is due to expire at the end of the year. While the region's towns and cities are mostly calm, local residents say kidnappings and armed robberies are on the increase in the mangrove swamps, where most oil wells are located. Former military ruler and Muslim northerner President Muhammadu Buhari said in his inauguration speech in May that he might
Image: REUTERS/Akintunde Akinleye

The cultivation of leaders with exceptional character and skills is critical to Africa’s development. Africa’s development partners should recognize that it is too late to teach someone who occupies a high position in government how to lead during side talks at global events. They should also bear in mind that there has to be alignment between the sense of identity of the leader and that of the followers for leadership to work.

Incompetence in leadership in most African countries is not only the problem of people who occupy positions in government; it is a reflection of the leadership culture. We’ve had different leaders with the same results for decades. The power distance that exists between leaders in government and citizens is also reflected in organizations and families. In such a structure, leaders don’t serve; they are served, because occupying leadership positions make leaders superior and unaccountable to the people they lead. Africa needs leadership development systems, and it is incumbent on development partners and global leaders to understand how cultural differences affect these.

Wanted: effective leadership development systems

Opportunities for developing leaders have never been greater in our increasingly complex world. Diagnosing leadership development needs, especially in Africa, requires an assessment of the entire leadership culture. For example, the GLOBE project, conceived of by Robert J. House of the Wharton Business School and conducted on organizations and middle-level managers around the world, describe countries in sub-Saharan Africa as scoring high in power distance and in-group collectivism, but low in performance orientation. Leaders do whatever it takes to produce results in such a leadership culture, and they usually position themselves and their cronies above the law. Most of the citizens have leadership potential, but several factors inhibit their leadership development, such as bad governance, poverty, corruption and religious bias. Most young people in Africa are hungry to learn and to realize their potential. They seek respected mentors and resources to help them navigate the complex life challenges they face. However, there is a dearth of institutions and curricula to help them realize such desires.

A broader view of leadership development provides insights into why some initiatives are more successful than others at generating change in individual behaviour. To have an impact, the capabilities being developed in the individual need to mesh with the leadership culture in which the leader is embedded. Most of the leadership development curriculum developed in Western countries may not particularly address individual situations, especially youth in developing parts of the world, who have little education as a foundation, and who are distracted by the struggle for survival occasioned by rampant poverty.

According to the GLOBE studies, emerging leaders in some developing countries approach foreigners cautiously; that’s because they’re not used to participative styles of leadership, and prefer bold, assertive styles of leadership. The notion of fear is high due to the conservativeness in the culture, and most people have not been trained to be independent thinkers that are willing to step outside their ‘boxes’ unless directed to do so by leaders. They have developed a learned state of helplessness, with the overwhelming feeling that they cannot change their circumstances. The culture is permission seeking. Unfortunately, the ruling class is not interested in granting permission for the mass of the people to be admitted into its cadre. In such a culture, the community dominates the individual, and women are hardly empowered.

Change is possible

Africa’s large youth population presents a great opportunity to influence the emergence of a new generation of leaders. The reality, though, is that the elite class on the continent tends to appropriate the existing curriculum for leadership development in expensive executive education programmes in business schools, whose fees are beyond the capabilities of the major part of the population. There is a need to democratize the leadership development process in the developing world. The high rate of infusion of mobile technology could be an advantage. This will make formal and informal leadership development an inclusive process that will reach people at all levels of society.

Africa needs cultural change agents that will leverage both business and non-profit platforms to offer leadership development training to a large proportion of the population. Such agents must have experienced a change in their own mind-sets. Development partners around the globe who genuinely seek Africa’s transformation should appreciate that the extractive leadership structures in that part of the world will not allow the intellectual, material and financial resources they distribute to create any meaningful and lasting change on the continent. They should cut down on the volume of financial aid, while partnering with cultural change agents who are democratizing the development of leaders at all levels, enhancing the evolution of inclusive political and economic structures.