Are private sector, civil society natural enemies?

Monday March 22 2010

 

By L. MUTHONI WANYEKI

On the eve of the Nation Media’s Group’s 50th anniversary Pan-African Conference, the Mo Ibrahim Foundation hosted what turned out to be more interesting dinner than expected.

Not just because of his presence — or that of Dr Salim Ahmed Salim, former secretary general of the then Organisation of African Unity as well as Joachim Chissano, former Mozambiquan president.

And not even because of the presence of Bono of U2 and members of his One campaign, who include Bobby Shriver, a member of the Kennedy family, Joshua Bolten, the chief of staff of George Bush, and the former head of Yahoo, to name but a few.

No. What made it interesting was the discussion that the presence of all these external senior ex-political advisors and ex-industry heads provoked among the Africans present — who themselves represented a wide range of civil society and private sector (including media) leaders from across the continent.

All of these men (they were mostly men) have obviously done extremely well for themselves.

They could be enjoying their lives in rather more frivolous ways than they’ve chosen to do.

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Instead, they’ve chosen to dedicate no small amount of their monies and, more importantly, time to African underdevelopment — the members of One had arrived in Kenya on the heels of visits around the continent, from Senegal to Mozambique, to see for themselves what the proceeds of their work on debt cancellation are being channelled into and are achieving.

Bolten introduced himself to me in Kiswahili, which he said he’d learnt while spending three weeks in Tanzania over the holidays with his girlfriend — not on the beaches of Zanzibar but volunteering for an orphanage.

Now I’ve as strong a sense of scepticism about non-Africans wanting to “help” Africans as almost every other educated African I’ve met.

And yes, individual members of One seem involved in the same individual and personal ways as first occur to everyone wanting to “do something” — Africans included.

But both the Mo Ibrahim Foundation and the One campaign seem collectively quite clear that justice rather than charity is what “doing something” is about.

And both focus on the systemic nature of underdevelopment — the former through governance and the latter through engaging with external financing.

So what did their presence catalyse among the Africans present?

A fairly hostile exchange between African civil society and the African private sector.

Lisa Karanja of Transparency International-Kenya kicked it off by asking what, if anything, the African private sector (Mo Ibrahim excluded) was putting into governance and human-rights issues on the continent.

Chris Kirubi of Haco Industries responded with words to the effect that just because the African private sector wasn’t chaining itself to fences or creating chaos through demonstrations didn’t mean that it wasn’t engaging in more sophisticated ways.

He proceeded to accuse African civil society of essentially focusing endlessly and tiresomely on the bad simply to get more external funding.

To which I had to (naturally) respond, pointing out that it was the right of all citizens to demonstrate as they saw fit — and that African civil society also did a hell of a lot more than demonstrate to bring about change.

Trevor Ncube of South Africa’s Mail & Guardian fortunately added his voice, as a business person, in support of the position that the African private sector had absolutely abdicated responsibility with respect to governance and human rights on the continent.

Naushad Merali of the Sameer Group contradicted him — saying it was the African private sector that had brought about everything of developmental note in the past few years, from employment to infrastructure.

And that he was personally tired of the endless stream of negativity from African civil society — and the media.

A young lawyer whose name I missed tried to strike a middle ground — saying we had to be more concerned about the basics (food, for example) if we expected anyone to be able to do anything even vaguely altruistic.

It was all quite revealing. In the main, the real captains of industry here — and the media owners — think they’re doing a good job with their recent ventures into corporate social responsibility — adopting, it must be said, a fairly old-school development approach.

And they see civil society as adding absolutely no value except nuisance value, courtesy of external funding.

Civil society — at least that part of it that doesn’t do old school development — think the private sector could and should do more.

And, also in the main, civil society secretly dislikes the old generation of the private sector, whose success they see as being inextricably linked to every horrible thing that they’re trying to address with respect to the state.

The thing is that it is not that the African private sector doesn’t give back. Every African gives back in one way or another.

We just give back in highly individual and personal ways, our primary obligations obviously being our (extended) families — not to mention the endless stream of harambees for the most basic of things, from education to hospital bills (and, rather more dubiously, weddings and burials).

Those of us with the capacity to give more tend to give in a charitable way — to equally basic things.

It is not that basic things are not important — they are fundamental.

It is that addressing them comprehensively, whether we like it or not, ultimately involves addressing the state — and the governance of the state.

This is true whether you come from the left and think that the state has an obligation to provide a minimum level of services.

Or whether you come from the right and think that the state has to get out of the way.

And frankly, most Africans have very low expectations of the state — having experienced it in the main as an exploitative and extractive force, they just want it to get out of the way.

The question is not then the old conundrum about giving a man (sic) a fish versus teaching him to fish.

It is about first assuming that s/he knows how to fish and addressing what’s preventing her or him from both being able to fish in the first place and from benefitting from having done so in the second place.

Is there value in continuing this fairly brutal revelation of what African civil society and the African private sector think of each other?

Probably... if only to get to some agreement on how to proceed with respect to the fish.

We cannot work at cross-purposes forever and turn round and round on the same spot. While all around us Africans die of hunger.

L. Muthoni Wanyeki is executive director of the Kenya Human Rights Commission

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