Expert opinion: regional development and leadership. With Mumbi Maria Wachira

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Mumbi Maria Wachira is a doctoral scholar at the University of Saint Gallen, Switzerland. Her doctoral research is based on the role sustainability reporting plays in encouraging environmental and social pro-activeness among African corporations. She completed a Bachelor of Commerce and holds a Master degree in Commerce with a specialization in Forensic Accounting with a thesis on the environmental management accounting practices of manufacturing firms based in Nairobi. She has taught several courses in Financial Accounting, Advanced Corporate Reporting and Public Financial Management at Strathmore University in Nairobi. Additionally, she is passionate about entrepreneurship and is involved in projects that foster training and consultancy of micro-businesses operating in Kenya. She has also acted as a mentor for African university students who participated in an international business plan competition hosted by the University of California Berkeley.

Going back is the way forward

To understand how the African continent will look in the next 30 years requires a great deal of introspection and creativity. With less than 5% of Africans attending institutions of higher learning, the region’s future rests in the hands of the few educated elite. Though the continent has shown immense progress through growth and investment in local businesses, advances in technology and marked improvements in education, development is hampered by corrupt governments, increasing inequalities in living standards, weak healthcare systems and high levels of insecurity among other impediments.

Due to deficiencies and negative perceptions of regional systems of education, many Africans go abroad to pursue higher learning. The educated segment of the African diaspora remains an untapped resource as many of them do not return to Africa once they leave. Furthermore, migration flows stemming from demographic pressures, environmental climate change, local armed conflict, human rights abuses, and terrorism have become barriers to economic and social development in the region. Starting with migration flows caused by demographic pressures and climate change, the African Development Bank reports that 29% of people in Sub-Saharan Africa want to move away from their current areas. Of those, 60% are dissatisfied with local public services whereas 20% are discontented with personal living standards.

This trend of events places the largest number of internal and external migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa in the category of those in search of better public services, rather than political refugees, or persons moving to exploit new economic opportunities elsewhere. For instance, migrants have been moving from areas where natural resources have come under pressure and people have been moving to urban areas or migrating to less populated regions in their own countries or in neighbouring territories in search of better public services. Unfortunately for some already densely populated countries, e.g. around the Great Lakes in East Africa, even modest increases in population density have caused major physical and social changes. Thus, the question many Africans grapple with is, “Should one stay or leave?”

I was born in Kenya, a country with over 40 million people, over 40 ethnic groups and one of the biggest and most advanced economies in East and Central Africa. Though we led a comfortable life in the country’s capital (Nairobi) the high levels of poverty in the city, prevalent crime rates and the predominant dictatorial regime at the time were not lost on us. I always feared that our way of life would be taken away abruptly.

At the time, several neighbouring African countries such as Rwanda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo were experiencing severe political upheavals resulting in shattered economies, displacement of millions of people and perpetuation of insecurity and fear. Both our parents encouraged my brother and I to excel academically because they knew education presented several possibilities and ultimately freedom. As I continued to grow and observe the world around me, I often struggled to comprehend why our country’s progress faltered. Why did we seem to regress while western nations flourished? Why were we always reliant on foreign aid; always the beggar never the giver? Several years later, I realize that many of these problems are inherently complex and cannot be resolved using a one size fits all approach across various Sub-Saharan territories. Patrick Awuah, founder and president of Ashesi University College in Ghana shares these sentiments and explains that part of the continent’s stagnation is because individuals in positions of responsibility and leadership have chosen to remain resigned to the status quo. If Africans acquiesce to the present situation, then our future is bleak indeed.

What then is the way forward? How can we create better lives for ourselves? Though many individuals are of the opinion that we should in essence ‘abandon the ship that is Africa’, I say we should stay. It is true that many of us did not perpetuate the heavy laden problems we face today. It is not our fault that our governments commit egregious actions; that we have some of the largest slums in the world or that systems of healthcare in several territories are constantly faltering. We did not choose to be African but we can choose to make it better for ourselves and the generations to come. Globally accepted precepts of sustainable development-i.e. “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”, must come into play. Interestingly, the considerations made for future generations in the concept of sustainable development are very similar to many traditional African customs and beliefs. Children in African culture have always been regarded as stewards of the community’s continuity; they resemble hope for a better, stronger and more united society.

The argument for going back is idealistic and seems to suggest that the current generation of educated Africans will make extraordinary positive changes on the continent. It would be naïve to assume that deeply ingrained problems such as corruption, tribalism and poverty can be solved by a few educated optimists in the span of one generation. The same problems are likely to continue for years to come and are not likely to be solved in the span of one lifetime. However, we can start by creating an environment that fosters local African talent, innovation and creativity for young people. I see so much potential in our communities; potential that we need to tap into.

This is why we need to stay; not for ourselves but for the next generation. Essentially, our role is to ensure that future leaders do not follow the same path of ineptitude and indifference, but create a better path. In the words of Franklin D. Roosevelt, “We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future.”

© Mumbi Maria Wachira

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