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Let's stop 'Romantics' and fix Politics in Africa

Yesterday at the African Summit at the University of Nottingham the conversation largely revolved around poverty reduction, development aid, education and entrepreneurship. There seemed to be a consensus that aid is problematic and that Africa should and must start to seriously rethink aid. There were concerns about both access and quality of education and then there was this huge enthusiasm about entrepreneurship, mentorship etc. And the now famous “bottom-up” story. By the way who is the “creator and owner” of bottom-up? What does it even mean? It is a concept so fashionable and certainly romantic but which is, in my view, empty and certainly a creation of the West (as usual). My first time to encounter bottom-up was when we had debate on transitional justice (TJ) in Kenya following the 2007-8 election violence. The largely “NGOnised” concept of bottom-up saw concerted efforts towards so called community involvement, community-led processes etc. In 2014 I attended the TJ forum in Speke Resort, Munyoyo, Kampala, Uganda and one could tell that the romanticization of the bottom-up had hit its all-time high. It looked and sounded nice for us to speak to us (yes us to us and our American funders) about bottom-up.

Having worked within NGO sector all this period there is no confusion in my mind that bottom-up is just simply a romantic thing and almost entirely a creation outside the bottom. It is not the bottom that created the bottom-up; it is us (the top) who decided the bottom needs the bottom-up. This is so terrifyingly true. Especially if it is about NGOs. Look. Western NGOs are too scared of anything even to be able to identify and reach the bottom, leave alone allowing the so called bottom to shape the agenda. It is until you work in an international NGO that you will know that actually it is “unsafe” for you to travel to your own home. Leave that aside. I voiced my concern over one thing. Folks, let’s be clear. Entrepreneurship and mentorship are other romanticised notions in Africa today. If you need to make money out of the “NGO enterprise” today, speak about stuff like youth mentorship, entrepreneurship, business and/or leadership incubation etc. It is fashion. Development aid works like fashion.

That aside. I could only have a chance to speak once during the Summit. And so I had to choose and say what is the most important concern to me. So, I decried the increasing apoliticisation of development in Africa. I told the audience that I am very worried about both the trend and rate at which people in the business and entrepreneurship bubble are attempting to create a narrative that politics is actually the problem which should be avoided by “serious people” who should instead focus their energy and time on wealth creation etc. I told them that, in my view, that is one of the biggest problems on the continent today. If we manage to address the mediocrity in management of public affairs (politics) in most of Africa, we shall have created a path through which to address all these others issues. Strong leadership within conducive and progressive political environment will help us do very many things; e.g. detect bad aid and know what to do about it, address corruption, improve access to and quality of education, address poverty, create good environment for entrepreneurship to thrive and even for people to organize and address their issues (bottom-up will emerge naturally). Let’s get a little bit more concerned and little bit busier with politics because there is where our major problem lies.

Let's stop 'Romantics' and fix Politics in Africa Let's stop 'Romantics' and fix Politics in Africa Reviewed by Ibrahim Magara on March 16, 2019 Rating: 5

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