What do Africans need to flourish? A lot of answers to that question are being given by a lot of very smart people. Power. Education. Health care. Governmental reform. Leadership. Jobs. And so on. There are many different takes on the future of the Continent. And even more on what the international community can to do help.
One of the ways the US government is approaching the effort is to provide young African leaders with a fellowship to study and intern in the US as part of the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI). Out of a pool of nearly 50,000 applicants from every country in Sub-Saharan Africa, the government selected 500 exceptional people under 35 to be a part of the inaugural class. The Mandela Washington Fellows are an extraordinary group, culled from the Continent’s most ambitious, innovative young leaders.
It is my luck that they happen to be in Washington, DC right now. This week I had the opportunity to attend a panel coordinated by the Society for International Development’s working groups on Africa and Youth and Empowerment. It featured three of the Mandela Washington Fellows, and was attended by over twenty others. In front of a packed room in downtown DC, these fellows blew me away with their energy, passion and intelligence.
I admit that I attended the panel with an ulterior motive. GBSN is a member of a coalition that is working towards being a part of the next phase of the YALI program: Regional Leadership Centers that will not only serve these fellows when they return home, but also the many others whom the fellowship could not accommodate. Our coalition of very smart people from development, academia and business had come up with what we thought were some great ideas about what young African leaders need in these centers. But we had not yet asked them. So, I did.
The response from the Fellows was insightful, and a bit overwhelming. In addition to the panelists who shared their thoughts during the program, several fellows approached me after the panel to be sure to give me their answer. Here is what I learned:
1. More than anything, young African leaders need hope and confidence. I heard over and over that one of the most valuable aspects of the Fellowship was the pride the Fellows felt for being chosen, the validation for their work that it provided them, and the support and understanding that they received from their peers. Too often leaders are lonely. They are often discouraged, a Fellow from Kenya told me, by both their own misgivings and by the people around them. They are intelligent, creative, driven and resourceful. But in order to take advantage of those talents, they need confidence in themselves and hope that they will prevail.
2. Information needs to be accessible. These young people were full of ideas and energy, and they know many others who are similar to themselves. Information about how to focus and implement their ideas, however, is often scattered and hard to understand in their context. This is a critical piece of the puzzle for a young person trying to impact change in their community: people need to know about the information, be able to access it, and then be able to understand and assimilate it. A Fellow from Liberia told me that it is important to reach out beyond the city centers and work through local connections. “Not everyone is on Facebook,” is an important thing for us all to keep in mind. Additionally, the actual presentation of the information must be designed to instill values, skills and confidence. Experiential education, which encourages critical thinking, problem solving and teamwork, was a revelation to a Fellow from Tanzania who attended classes at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth. He told me that it helped him to develop and learn in ways that he’d never experienced in his previous education of wrote learning and lectures.
3. Diverse networks create stronger ideas and promote global understanding. A Fellow from Zimbabwe, who is in business, explained that part of the power of the program was that he could present an idea and get feedback from people who have completely different backgrounds and provide a fresh perspective on his challenges. Another business Fellow, this one from Kenya, told me that what he’d learned from a South African Fellow who runs an environmental protection organization was invaluable to him. Another Fellow talked about how knowing someone from Ethiopia now, he has a more personal perspective on the news he hears coming out of that country, and it means more to him. Being able to connect with people from different countries and different sectors allowed these Fellows to have a more nuanced understanding of the world and how they interact with it.
4. You can’t ignore the government, but you mustn’t be dissuaded by it either. I was advised that any coalition attempting to reach impact at scale that doesn’t engage the government will not be able to reach its full potential, and in fact will likely find more roadblocks ahead than if the government were at the table. However, on the flip side, the question of corruption and inept governance hindering development was met with impressive optimism and surprising disinterest by the Fellows in the room. They acknowledge the difficulties in their countries’ governments, while at the same time expressing faith in the power of a growing middle class, entrepreneurial young people, and a more connected, globally aware population to drive change in entrenched, but aging, leaders and systems.
Stories of “Africa rising” and Obama’s US-Africa Summit juxtapose with those of ineffective health care systems and a rapidly expanding population of restless young people. Africa is complex and diverse, and this reality was emphasized by the Fellows in their presentations and our conversations. If the international community is going to help the continent flourish, we need to make sure we take heed of the advice its young leaders are giving us. Leadership training is great, financial support is important, and mentoring can make a real difference in people’s lives. But as we do these things, we should not forget the power of showing them that they are capable, making the information they need truly accessible, and facilitating connections with their peers across sectors and borders. As I move forward with my own work, I know that I will keep these in the forefront of my mind.
Page Schindler Buchanan is the Director of Operations at the Global Business School Network.
** Image courtesy of SID Washington