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Redefining development in Africa


It is said that humanity is going through the most fertile, creative, productive and fruitful period of history. Contemporary civilisation is the greatest producer of wealth, affluence, prosperity and ‘development’. Ironically, it is also the producer of the greatest pollution, destruction, poverty, hunger, violence, hatred and inequality between humans.

Many ‘developed’ countries are underdeveloped in many ways, while many ‘developing’ countries are really not developing. While the global north is struggling with the negative effects of overdevelopment, mis-development or mal-development, Africa is struggling with the negative effects of slow or no development. The north is excessively rich; Africa is excessively poor.

Both poverty and wealth put pressure on the resource bases of the world. The rich contribute to damaging the earth through excessive greed, consumerism and unsustainable lifestyles. The poor also damage the earth through bush burning, cutting down valuable trees without any plan to replace them, and selling rare animal parts – all in a bid to raise some money to feed themselves and their families. Poverty can be as bad as excessive wealth and both over-development and under-development are incompatible with sustainable development. Europe and America are well developed – but at a high price.

Agricultural intensification has resulted in biodiversity loss, greenhouse emissions and climate change. In the United States and Canada, individuals release over 10,000 pounds of carbon dioxide (CO2) per person per year. Heating and cooling systems in the U.S. emit over 500 million tons of CO2 into the atmosphere each year. New York alone uses more gasoline in a week than the whole of Africa does in a year. The US state of Texas, with a population of 30 million, emits more CO2 than 93 developing countries added together, with a combined population of nearly one billion people.

China’s GDP has grown by over 10% in the past five years, while India’s has grown by 8-9%. More than 500 million people in China have been lifted out of poverty in the past 25 years. Vietnam’s GDP has grown more than 8% per year for the past three years. In 1976, Malaysia’s poverty rate was 50% (same as Nigeria). Today, it is said to be less than 5%. In 1993, Vietnam’s poverty level was nearly 60% (the same as Nigeria); now it is under 20%. Economists project that if current trends continue, Asian’s portion of global GDP will rise from 30% today to 50% by 2040.

However, Asia’s growth has also come at a price. Asia is in danger of losing up to 75% of its forests and 40% of its biodiversity this century. Already, in the past 25 years, Asia has lost half of its forests, degraded one-third of its agricultural land, and become home to 13 of the world’s 15 most-polluted cities. As India’s middle-class families have increased in number and wealth, this has caused an increase in demand for foodstuffs, and the country’s agricultural production capacity can’t meet the demand. Similar trends are taking place in Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Brazil.

Looking at Africa, what is obvious is not the growth of basic and mature engineering, automation, post-harvest preservation, food processing and packaging technologies, infrastructural developments, social amenities, oil management technology and water technology – all of which are vital for poverty eradication.

Rather, what is evident is the spread of religious dogma, an extraordinary sprouting of churches, Pentecostalism and piety, which demands unquestioning submission to revealed ‘truths’ and discourages reason, dissidence and logic.

Excessive religionism and spiritualism may be one of the greatest obstacles to progress of African nations. And the greatest challenge facing Africa today may well be her ability to cultivate a mindset that is steeped in chemistry, mathematics and physics while still maintaining a reasonable and balanced approach to religion.

Development here refers to the ability of nations to order the society in such a way that there is stability and security, and basic amenities such as water, housing and energy. Viewed in this sense, it is true that many African countries have never seen ‘development’ or modernity.

Many African nations are yet to upgrade, renew and evolve their knowledge bases. They find a lazy and easy excuse in referring to times past, ‘the good old days’, to ancient ways of life that are not compatible with modern realities. Others blame colonialism, capitalism, civilization or modernity.It is true that we Africans were once enslaved. It is true that some capitalist foreigners invaded our land and ruled over us, and exploited our natural resources for selfish gains. But were we the only race that was colonised?

Much of African culture is backward-looking and static, and this is keeping over 70% of Africans in poverty. It lacks innovation and dynamism, and projects culture as a static, unchangeable way of life rather than an evolving and changing interaction of intelligent beings in society, thereby widening the gap between the African continent and the rest of the world.

African universities and centers of learning are filled with professors and ‘scholars’ who are   not able to update their knowledge bases. They can only see the world as they were taught it as students. They are not able to go beyond their doctoral and master theses, and hold on to the same old ideas of 30, 40 years ago. While there has been a rapid, breathtaking technological innovation in medicine for example, there has not been a corresponding change in the medical curriculum in Nigerian universities. A course in business administration is done the same way as it is done in, say, an American university, as if the student is an American. A law curriculum is arranged in such a way that pre-eminence is given to the study of laws that originated in Europe.

Higher technical education is increasingly recognised as critical to development, especially with growing awareness of the role of science, technology and innovation in economic growth. Universities and research institutions are well placed to aid development through their involvement with local business industry and society. Universities and institutions in developing countries can aid development by focusing some of their technical training on specific development needs. Nigerian polytechnics were established precisely to meet the need for technical training in various fields of expertise, in order to hasten development. Unfortunately, the craze for university degrees and the prestige of being labelled a university graduate often makes polytechnic graduates feel inferior and less valued.

It is very important that universities in Africa focus on encouraging innovation and concentrate on building entrepreneurial skills among students to help them develop the capacity to transform ideas into business proposals and actual products and services; otherwise these universities remain mere ivory towers with no impact on societal transformation.

University education, as it is presently constituted in Nigeria and Africa, is geared towards producing graduates who are job seekers rather than job creators. Universities also need to integrate with their local communities and help to promote local economic transformation. The aim of such a new movement of formal education system, which I call a communiversity, is to produce entrepreneurial graduates who are likely to generate jobs in their communities while adding to the growth of the economy. Such communiversities consciously recognise and transcend the embedded dichotomies in the conventional mode of knowledge creation.They are the future of education in Africa and the world.

Adodo is Catholic priest and director of Pax Centre for Integral Research and Development.

In this article:
Anselm Adodo

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