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America on the Prowl: Lessons for Africa

One of the highlights of Barrack Obama’s recent African visit is his announcement of the Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders. This is a flagship initiative whereby hundreds (and potentially thousands) of talented young Africans will be given the opportunity to receive academic and leadership training from top-flight American universities and institutions. One way Obama reinforced his interest in young Africans is his town hall style meeting at the University of Johannesburg with South African students, and with other youths from Nigeria, Kenya and Uganda connected via satellite link. The fact that Obama committed over an hour of a tightly-packed three nation tour to this engagement is testimony to its importance to the US president.

This fellowship is quite a mouth-watering offer. According to the brief on the White House website, it involves “world-class training and mentoring in three vital areas: business and entrepreneurship; civic leadership; and public administration”. There will also be a “Presidential Summit in Washington, D.C. where fellows will interact with US government, civic, and business leaders, including President Obama”. That’s not all: “With the support of private and public sector partners, Washington Fellows will have access to exceptional opportunities including internships and placements with companies and NGOs and small grants to start business, establish or expand non-governmental organizations, or undertake projects”. Wow!

This noble gesture, on the face of it, demonstrates the well-known American spirit of generosity on one hand, and Obama’s commitment to African development on the other. What is less obvious but perhaps more important, is that it cloaks and reveals, simultaneously, America’s celebrated penchant for attracting and securing the world’s best human resources. Though the project is aimed at equipping selected youths to return to Africa to help “improve their communities”, I can bet my granny’s last tooth that the majority of these youngsters will end up somehow with American Green Cards and passports. Yes, they may come back home on holidays, and to start new NGOs, and marry their childhood sweethearts, and appear on TV shows, etc, but we can be sure that the bulk of their contribution to human development will go through American society. And this will not be because Obama is being duplicitous, but mainly because America, unlike most African nations, knows what to do with talent.

I read somewhere that Nigeria’s star novelist, Chimamanda Adichie said something about American universities making it irresistible for talented students to keep studying. Since going to the US at 19, Adichie (now 35) has gone on to earn master’s degrees from two top-flight American universities, John Hopkins and Yale while carrying on a highly successful writing career. Although she continues to be officially identified as Nigerian, she is sometimes listed as an American writer. Adichie is just one in a long list of high caliber talents, which for practical purposes, are now almost permanently lost to Africa. It is no wonder too that many US institutions have become home to the large percentage of the crème de la crème of Africa’s intelligentsia.

Thus, while Obama’s flagship initiative may be the most official form of brazen talent poaching in recent times, it really is not anything new. And sad to say, it merely follows a trend that is set to continue well into the foreseeable future given Africa’s current socio-political calculus. With befuddled bureaucracies and often less than strategic policies and practices in state institutions and among political and technocratic leaders in most African countries, our developmental interests will continue to suffer as our talents drift away to places where they are welcomed, nurtured, and adequately appreciated. Perhaps we can learn from America in this regard.

Perhaps Africans can learn the hard, but stark truth that the right set of skills, the right talents, which are always associated with competent and professional service ‘delivery’ are more conducive to enduring social development than the politically correct skin colour, nationality of origin, language, ethnicity or party affiliation. To stem the tides of brain drain from Africa, our socio-political culture has to incorporate a far greater recognition of the abilities of individuals over and above our present glorification (to paraphrase Julius Nyerere) of colour, creed and origin. Put simply, we need to realize that what people bring to a society is more important than where they come from.

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