Growing youth unemployment remains a socio-economic challenge in Africa. Several initiatives, including foreign development aid programmes, are being deployed to address this. Many come with noble intentions. But they are undermined by the flawed approach of parachuting solutions made in the West.
A study focusing on a seven year old multi-million dollar programme from the US illustrates this point. The programme was established under former US President Barack Obama’s administration in 2010. It was first called the Young African Leaders Initiative. In 2014 it was renamed the Mandela Washington Fellowship. It’s coordinated by the United States Agency for International Development. The programme’s main objective is to support Africa’s next generation of leaders.
It’s just one of many development aid initiatives undertaken from the US and the broader western world. These programmes have good intentions. But many suffer from a number of weaknesses. These include the fact that they are parachuted in.
Our research suggests that the Mandela Washington Fellowship isn’t realising its potential because of two major problems. The participation of key stakeholders, such as governments and the private sector, is limited. And the courses are based on a weak understanding of the local context in which entrepreneurs have to function.
Our survey suggests that it remains unclear whether the programme has considered key elements that are crucial to the successful implementation of its goals.
The Mandela Washington Fellowship consists of three main tracks of leadership development. They are business and entrepreneurship, civil leadership, and public management.
Every year since 2010, 100 fellows with strong leadership potential are selected from various African countries. They participate in a six to eight week period of mentoring, networking and entrepreneurial training in different US institutions.
The Agency for International Development has channelled $10 million into this programme. In addition to the training in US institutions, four regional leadership centres have been established in Africa. These are designed to be public private partnerships.
Together with developing leadership capacity, the initiative helps in developing a stronger entrepreneurial ecosystem by fostering regional networks. It can help local small businesses become sustainable. The initiative can also create private sector driven economies and encourage innovative startups across various sectors. These include agriculture, health, science and technology.
Interviews with several stakeholders from academic and government institutions, the private sector, and programme fellows provide insight into the significance of the programme in Africa. Most thought the initiative could contribute to building strong and competitive African economies. But several flaws were also identified.
The first was that key stakeholders, such as government departments and ministries, research institutions and the private sector, are visibly absent from the programme across many African countries.
Secondly, a number of those interviewed suggested that the programme’s objectives didn’t reflect African governments’ policy agendas. For example, one government official wanted to know how the programme helped to address a competitive agri-business sector. He asked about this connection because the sector is central to his government’s agricultural policy. He also wanted to know what research and development is being conducted in local universities.
These concerns potentially undermine the prorgramme’s credibility.
Local context is key
The huge differences between business entrepreneurship in America and Africa generated heated discussion, particularly among academic experts. Some questioned the limited understanding of local context of American instructors and training providers. A few fellows suggested that some professors focused too much on issues that are irrelevant to Africa.
There was also a strong view that the programme has developed packages that neglected decades of experience and research in Africa. Some argued that it must be integrated with other local initiatives.
One expert explained that being an entrepreneur in New York has little in common with the experiences of one in Lagos or Johannesburg. Unique underlying conditions require the entrepreneur to function quite differently than she would in the American context. This is compounded by weak institutional capacity and lack of access to various forms of finance that prevails in many African countries.
Bad leadership, corruption and weak infrastructure also remain significant hindrances to entrepreneurial development in Africa. Stakeholders argued that basic training could be given to some bright young entrepreneurs. But without the right governance, economic support and infrastructure required to run the businesses, they are bound to fail regardless of any training.
Because these problems are endemic, the programme’s relatively short duration also becomes a concern.
African governments must pay attention to entrepreneurship development before foreign assistance can yield good results. Their entrepreneurship policies should encourage three key points. Firstly, entrepreneurship development must be integrated across all levels of education and training programmes and economic development initiatives.
Secondly, entrepreneurship policy must promote innovation and recognise human development and its cultural value. Thirdly, entrepreneurship development should encourage investment in infrastructure, research and development.
It will be difficult for foreign aid programmes to make a difference unless this kind of policy is put in place. For their part, foreign aid initiatives must identify with national government programmes within Africa – especially those that target local entrepreneurship activities.
They must run on productive partnerships with research institutions as well as local, private and public sectors. These are important. They can help monitor progress and evaluate against targets. They can also be useful in scaling up the programme.
The partnership should prioritise the involvement of more African trainers. Local experts with deep knowledge of local conditions should be engaged in teaching and running the programme in partnership with American counterparts. This can overcome the critical challenge of providing training that’s relevant to Africa.