It is the seeming “invisible” issues that are easy to ignore that end up being the most consequential. Institutions are not buildings. Institutions are people and if the people have wrong attitudes this will manifest through the institutions they lead and vice versa. For quite so long, we in Africa seem to have formulated a wrong thesis to begin with, hence looking at the wrong place for solutions.
I say this because we have most of the time overlooked the most critical component of good institutions and good governance which is: people. Strong institutions need people to run them. These people come from the very societies that practice the negative vices that manifest in the very institutions we talk about every day. When we talk sometimes, I always ask why don’t each and every one of us ask what he/she can offer and start doing it because these very people who run institutions come from our societies. Societies that are riddled with individualism, selfishness, entitlement, failure to take responsibility, jealousy, tribalism and such. This reality then brings to the fore the most important aspect of strong institutions and good governance in Africa. And that is attitude. The attitudes of citizens determine whether strong institutions and good governance can take root.
These attitudes manifest in a preference for individualism rather than collectivism. These flawed attitudes manifest in our failure to nurture selflessness and a preference for selfishness. Entitlement runs throughout society.
The point is this – strong institutions are a manifestation of the collective attitudes of people. When we talk of “weak institutions,” we are talking of the collective impact of a citizenry attitude in society. And unless we address the attitudes of the collective citizenry, then talk of strong institutions will continue to be elusive.
BRIDGING THE GAP
Nurturing strong institutions needs a purposeful and enterprising Africa. And these cannot happen if all of us at an individual level, do not align our drive for socio-economic solutions around selflessness. A whole of society approach is urgently needed where we:
First, the purpose is to act with what we have as individuals – our skills, talents, interest, ongoing work, not always waiting for elusive perfection or hoping to get what we think we need before we take action – what is called “stubborn optimism”.
Second, work selflessly with the communities to co-create solutions with them to the socio-economic challenges they face. And as we do so, we remain firmly focused on the impact being made to touch many lives, and work to perfect this system of solutions. Not look at a personal material gain. It is out of proffering and delivering solutions to the socio-economic challenges we face that more changes in attitudes towards selflessness in more citizens can be achieved. Because many will start to see that material creation of a groundswell of solutions which create an environment to ensure no one experiences the fear of want or need and could reduce the attitudes to grasp everything everywhere which is the main cause. If we start to do this it will not only inform policy from a more practical dimension but also create an attractive product that inspires
“One camel does not make fun of the other camel’s hump”. this African proverb reminds us, that the strong institutions or lack therefore in Africa, are not a matter of finger-pointing and blame game. We are all guilty as an African society for nurturing them, deliberately or otherwise. And in solving them, there are no shortcuts. We all must engage and become selfless solutions providers in whatever we do. It is out of nurturing selfless values at an individual level, that we change the societal norms of self-centeredness that have fueled our governance and weak institutions challenges and failures. Such selfless actions aimed at generating solutions to challenges around us, and using what we already have, will also serve to provide empirical lessons to inform policy and institutional processes from a more practical realistic dimension. Over time, like selflessness, and solutions first, rather than self-interest, gets entrenched as a societal norm, we will ensure more of those who end up in policy decision making, that we have become accustomed to blame, actually bring to their job, selflessness as a core value. With these values nurtured, strong institutions will start to emerge.
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of his affiliated institution.