Self-Esteem in Africa

by Moussa P. Blimpo (the author is a Ph.D. candidate in Economics at NYU from Togo.) A prominent university professor in the US goes back to his home country in Africa with his American Master’s student who wanted to get some field experience. The professor is unable to schedule a meeting with a key political leader whereas the student does get a meeting with the African leader.

Last summer, in a heated discussion with some friends and graduate students at the University of Lome in Togo, a pre-doctoral student says: I need to find a white guy on my committee.

In 2000 when I got to France to start college, I asked to take one year of prerequisite courses before I started the normal 4-year math degree because I believed that my high school diploma from Togo was not on par with the French equivalent. Fortunately my brother attended the same university and he convinced me then that we actually cover more materials in Togo than the French.

By and large, it seems that Africans have a negative bias toward their own capability and the aptitudes and that of other Africans. This bias is present at all level of the African society. There are many possible explanations for this:

  1. It seems to most that white people made most modern scientific advancements and discoveries in human history and this is subconsciously promoted through our normal schooling.
  2. A rational choice and statistical discrimination: Given the rampant corruption and the resulting mediocrity of the decision makers and the servants, any foreigner is de facto assumed to be able to do better.
  3. Legacy of slavery and or colonization: Just as recent research has suggested a relation between trust and slavery, it is likely that many other social attitudes and perceptions persist.
  4. The continued presence of the predominantly white aid workers and the importance and attention given to them by the leaders. Local scholars are marginalized in favor of westerners who work under the banner of the international organizations. For example, it is much easier for any World Bank consultant to meet with and to be listened to by a minister or to appear on national tv in Africa than professors in African universities.

This attitude could be a big impediment to the much-needed innovation in African societies. Spreading technologies is great in that it avoids reinventing the wheel. But in my view, many innovations respond to contextual needs and demands. Therefore, homegrown innovations to solve day-to-day challenges are a must to development. My view is that point 2 and 4 are the dominant. Readers’ thoughts are welcome.