Africa as the World’s Problem Child and how I feel about it as an African

By Teniola Tayo

Before I came to study for a Masters in International Development at the London School of Economics in September 2019, I had never been to Europe – or to any part of the Western world for that matter. The “Global North”, if you like.

However, I never thought that the fact that I had lived the entire two decades plus of my life on “the continent” was a problem for me. I considered myself very well read and somewhat well spoken, as were all my friends. I had never been to England but I had stayed up to follow the Brexit vote, watching the numbers change on The Guardian in 2016 and understood the issues (including the psychological tactics used in the campaign) as well as the next guy.

When Donald Trump won the American elections, I usually pointed people to some of the other nationalist movements in the West as evidence that surely the world must have seen this coming. Why was everyone pretending to be shocked? I passionately discussed the Gilets Jaunes in France with French friends. My friends and I were Africans living in Africa but we regarded ourselves as being on equal footing with the rest of the world.

On the other hand, I was not unaware of all the things that were wrong with my continent, I just had a more optimistic approach to things. I sat in roundtables, conferences and restaurants and argued vehemently with academics, colleagues and friends against “African exceptionalism” – this idea that there was something uniquely wrong with Africa.

I spoke up whenever I felt a fellow African was being too negative or defeatist. I made statements like “We die here” – a popular Nigerian phrase that is used to express a deep commitment to a person or cause. I was acutely aware of the scale of the humanitarian crisis in Northern Nigeria caused by the Boko Haram insurgency. How could I not be, when I had visited Internally Displaced Persons camps and interacted with girls with wide eyes that only wanted to go home. I knew we had a problem. I was working in development and I knew all the important numbers.

Then I moved to London, and I started studying International Development at the LSE.

Raise your hand if you’re from a poor country

There’s this graph. It’s pretty much one of the first graphs you’ll see, if you ever decide to venture into the deep waters of International Development. It shows how some centuries ago, the world economy was basically in a pretty bad shape. Then some economies took off, leaving some behind. Then some other economies took off, leaving one particular macro-region behind. And that macro-region continues to get poorer. I could give you one guess what region it is, but because I’m a nice person, you can have two.

I like to say (and have had to say a few times since I got here) that I don’t think anyone is better informed about the “African problem” than Africans themselves. We may not know the numbers, we may not be aware of our global rankings, but we know that yesterday our neighbour Sandra died in the hospital because there was no doctor available to see her. We know that a family in Onitsha died from carbon monoxide poisoning because of the electric generator they were using for power. We know how many of us have been defeated by our countries.

You want to tell me about corruption in Nigeria? My own father produced and supplied solar powered street lights to the Lagos state government in the 90s. The payment for his hard work as the founder of what was a young engineering start-up was shared amongst the government officials, leaving him in debt.

You want to tell me about poor public service administration? I left my job as an Aide in the Office of the Senate President with two month’s unpaid salary. Poverty? My family was probably lower-middle income, but there were times when as an 11 year old, I had to cook a meal for my family with less than $2.

So, we know. We know we have a problem. I guess we just didn’t know we were the world’s problem. At least, in the way that it is presented in the field of International Development.

Needless to say, this was a lot for me to take in. I would sit in class after class, lecture after lecture, seminar after seminar and be confronted with charts, graphs and all the other forms numbers take, all repeating the same chorus – Africa is a problem.

At one public lecture on feminism where Rwanda showed up on a chart of countries with better female representation in parliament, the presenter expressed her shock and asked for an explanation of this anomaly from the audience. At a seminar, my Teaching Assistant said to me “It appears Nigerians are very proud of their country, but with all due respect, it is lower middle income and cannot be used as an example.” I was reminded of a verse I read in the Bible a long time ago (when I used to read it more often), “Can anything good come out of Africa?” I imagined the world’s face turned to me, in question.

Africa was poor relative to the rest of the world. Yes. But were African people inherently “less able” relative to the rest of the world?

Africa wasn’t poor because Africans were stupid. But I realised that it was an inference many people made subconsciously and it sometimes found its way into their speech and attitudes. My concern was also because many of the Westerners in my class (future African expats and development workers) were in their formative stage with regards to their opinions about the continent. It was crucial to present a balanced perspective. My fellow African colleagues were already experiencing the consequences of this and were complaining about being talked down by Western peers.

The External Gaze…..

“We need to teach the Africans how to govern themselves.” Depending on who you are and what you’ve read, you may or may not have a problem with that statement. I had a problem with it.

Say it Loud, I’m Black and Proud

Struggling with the added component of my identity – being black in Europe – and at the same time getting bombarded by so much negativity about Africa was overwhelming. It was hard. Why was Africa lagging so far behind? Why were we unable to negotiate good deals for ourselves? Why was Africa plagued with low productivity?

But also, why did so many people think they could solve the “African problem”? Everywhere I turned, there was someone prescribing something – “What Africa needs to do is to….” “African leaders just need to….”

I couldn’t run away from it. Running away would’ve been like trying to scrub the brown off my skin. Now I am reminded of a seminar where three of us Africans were working on a task as a group. The seminar leader came to assess our progress then declaimed loudly “You’re lagging behind!” The thing is, we probably were lagging behind. Partly because I was being argumentative and challenging the opinions of the others. The other thing, though, was that his declaration hung around us like a stubborn odour. Africans lagging behind? What else is new.

I have since coined the phrase ‘defensively African’. Hello, my name is Teni and I’m from a poor African are you?

All right, I’ll stop now

How do I end this? I guess by clarifying who I hold responsible. I don’t blame my Professors. I don’t blame my seminar leaders. I don’t blame my course-mates. I don’t even blame Western society. The people that I blame are my African leaders.

Yes, the IMF might have gone crazy ruining some African economies, but who let them in? Who put us in a position where we had no choice but to let them in? Slavery? We were introduced to the international market and promptly decided the most lucrative thing we could sell was our own people. Colonialism? I haven’t made up my mind on that one.

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. Credit: ODI

I blame my African leaders for the past and the present but I’m looking to them for the future. One of them, Ngozi Okonjo Iweala, said something that has stuck with me. Yes, the world might see Africa as its problem child, but it is essential that we do not see ourselves that way. Many things have gone wrong with regards to African development but some things have gone right. While it might be sexy to discuss what is wrong with Africa, it is more important to roll up our sleeves and work at replicating what we have done well. Let us learn from the African countries that are leading the pack on economic growth and diversification, poverty alleviation, political stability and others.

How? That’s for another post.

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48 Responses to “Africa as the World’s Problem Child and how I feel about it as an African”
  1. Teni, I have often wondered the content of courses such as yours. I am more enlightened now. I believe in Africa and I believe in a new generation rising that would see Pride in the black color as a weapon of bastard development. I would do my bid. Thank you for writing.

    • Farah Sofa

      Teni,i feel you. When i did my masters degree in uk, the picture was authoritarian and corrupt south east asia,despite all the positive progress on leaping out of poverty. Wonder what the curriculum will look like a decade from now,when global order is reversed

  2. Maf

    Many thanks for this piece, its very timely and really important to hear. I am currently studying an MA in International Development at the Institute for Development Studies and will be undertaking my research in Uganda in May looking at older persons voice in the policy making process. I wish you all the best with your studies too!

  3. Lawrenta Igoh

    “…It is more important to roll up our sleeves and work at replicating what we have done well…”. This is a great piece, thank you for sharing your thoughts on the matter Teni.

  4. Kate

    Thanks Teni! I am also interested in narratives about Africa in international development, which seem to oscillate between two extremes – as nicely illustrated in your economist covers above – either ‘Africa as Problem Child’ or ‘The Future is African’. Obviously the second view is more optimistic but also still with a tendency to position Africa as a rich resource to be tapped by international business or global powers, rather than as an engine of internal growth, an equal negotiating partner, or a thought or cultural leader in its own right. I think you are right to emphasise the importance of better leadership – I daresay this is true for many countries in every continent including here in the UK. The question is how we can break through the networks of patronage and clientelism and sheer wealth that prop up ruling elites the world over. I’m personally more optimistic about what the next 20 years might bring for many countries in Africa than I am for the UK right now though – I think the sheer demographic importance of younger people with aspirations and a vision for change will be a positive force for transformation across Africa.

    • Teniola Tayo

      Thank you Kate! I am also optimistic for the future and really passionate about the perception and reality of African agency. Many of us are dissatisfied with the status quo and our numbers are growing. We’re standing up as a continent and taking our seat at the table. It will take some doing but I’m convinced that it’s already happening.

    • Henry Deckon

      Thank you so much Teni, this masterpiece is very insightful & awakening. There has been a lot of war within me why our Leaders signed some treaties in the past. This is pardonable l guess. Since we are wiser now;if we truly are, why dont we begin to make amends by not just creating fantastic macro-economic policies but rather implement them. It baffles me to hear that Nigerians are the most educated in America, if you like across the world but yet our dear Country is still bleeding from post-colonnial effect. I hope our Leaders see this article. I am Proud to be an African, l hope & pray that we start the journey of true change by first changing our mind-set to a positive energy so we can begin to grow.

  5. Amaka

    …No one is better informed about the “African problem” than Africans themselves….
    Until we look inward and apply our rich talents, resources.. into African development and governance, coming generations will keep on living with these statistics and global shaming. Today is the right time to speak up and say no to bad governance and its proceeds.
    Thank you Teni

  6. Thank you, exactly! Every day I champion brilliant Afropreneurs to dubious US investors. I do not blame African leaders, who often must choose the lesser evil. Ethical Africans ARE working to solve African problems. Americans must break their addiction to an out-moded mindset and join us in a new era of African prosperity.

    • Teniola Tayo

      I find that the “business” side of things is a lot more optimistic than the “development” side. Afropreneurs are doing amazing things – despite constraints – and I’m excited about the future. Thank you for reading Marsha!

      • Yes, entrepreneurs are inherently optimistic about solving problems, whereas development industry jobs rely on not solving them. Permit me a clarification on my prior comment, “I do not blame African leaders,” which sounds naive. An African minister asked me to find ethical contractors to help his province build roads and develop natural resources, but I was turned down by all I approached, over security concerns for their employees. Later, I prodded him because The Economist had labeled his deal with China as being the worst in history. Filled with righteous indignation, he shouted, “What am I supposed to do? My people cannot eat diamonds! They must have ROADS to get food. And Westerners will not help.” Thieves flock wherever capital congregates, be it Wall Street or foreign aid. Leaders make tough choices on behalf of their people.

        • Another clarification about “development industry jobs rely on not solving them.” Factfullness is a book filled with authoritative data about development issues that HAVE very nearly been solved, but few of us know about them because unresolved issues grab the headlines and development dollars.

  7. What you have described, Teni, also resonates in other “southern” countries in the Americas and in Asia. Those with more economic power tend to assume that their knowledge and skills automatically exmplify the ideal. Well presented, Teni!

    • Teniola Tayo

      I realised this too when some of my classmates from other parts of the world messaged me about feeling the same way. Sometimes I feel like this issue contributes to the challenges faced by development practice outcomes. I guess “Southerners” need to raise their voices while continuing to work hard. Thank you Ivan!

    • Miss A. Egbunu

      …thanks for being a proud daughter of Africa. We(Africans) are now better educated and focused to transist into global economic height without ploys, hate and lick baits of the west. Believe it or not, the world cannot do without African resources. Arguably, Africa may not hold technology capital but the market is here. Twice, I declined invitations to USA to sell off a research work on intractable cyclone, (which Americans will eventually claim proprietary) because of my conviction that sense is not common, as often assumed. We can always redefine our growth appetite, just like any continent if we jettison short-term negative desires and embrace long-term sacrifice, which is the only sure manifold.

    • Teniola Tayo

      Yes it’s very easy to internalise dependency and the ripple effects are terrible. I passionately preach agency to my African colleagues all the time. Thank you Jorge!

  8. Phyllis Pomerantz

    So important. I teach in a mid-career master’s program with students from all over the world. For many, sitting in my class is the first time they have heard something positive about Africa ( other than the usual resource riches being squandered cliche), and that includes students from the US. And sometimes African grad students are not treated well by their peers. Ngozi is right. The critical thing is for the continent and its people to believe in themselves. My very best students have been from all over the world in pretty equal proportions.
    Great blog!

    • Teniola Tayo

      You’re right, Phyllis. For some of us that have been in Africa all our lives, we know many of the negative things are true but we also know that there is so so much more. Once, a classmate used a Nigerian city as a case study for a presentation and I could immediately see the problem. It opened my eyes to how our countries are perceived when they’re reduced to academic concepts that only focus on the negatives. I do think that ID departments in the Global North need to be a bit more careful and balanced as they are grooming the next set of ID practitioners. Thank you for reading Phyllis!

  9. Gordon

    Temi, great views! Thanks for sharing. This is precisely the same thurst of the introduction I give my first-year students when I start my course on African foreign policy. (Overdue) time to shift the mind-set. Enjoy LSE!

  10. Daniel Chachu

    Hi Teni, thanks for your article. It was a good read and well written. I agree with most of the issues you raised. My only concern is how we describe ourselves. So I have been struggling with the “black” identity we have accepted. I have been wondering about its origin and only now started reading about it. Why do we accept ourselves as black people and not simply Africans? I have met or seen various people with various shades of skin colour – from dark-skinned to lighter-skinned people – some from Africa and others from other continents. The darker-skinned people with no link to Africa are not considered black. And for those who are Africans, I would shudder to describe their colour as the black colour I know. More so, the colour has often been used negatively in language and culture, relative to white. For example, Wikipedia says this about the term “black people”. “…Not all black people have dark skin; however, in certain countries, often in socially based systems of racial classification in the Western World, the term black is used to describe persons who are perceived as dark-skinned compared to other populations.”
    I think Africans should not accept a racially-charged description. We are proud to be Africans and that is enough!

    • I can’t agree more with what you write Daniel Chahu…not only that, but referring to non-whites as “colored” is equally discriminating….I wish to challenge the terms “White”, “Black”, or “colored” equally….Thanks Teni for an inspiring post, will get back to you directly for further comments, congratulations for this very important debate…

  11. Wow! This is good reading, Teni! I have gone through such a class and I share your feelings. This has rekindled the fire of identity in me and making me realise that in the face of all adversity, Africa is still great and can do great things if only we believed in our potentials. Reminds me of Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame’s interview on “Changing the narrative about Africa”:

  12. Georg Lennkh

    Your statement, Teni, is extremely vivid, electrifying- you have to continue.
    I have given years to think about the ‘why’. After more than ten years in development cooperation, I am sick and tired of comments here in Austria of the sort ‘Africa just has to…’. Perhaps the best piece of thought I came across in this context was Moussa Konaté’s ‘L’Afrique noire est-elle maudite?’ about stifling African tradition, and that African youth will be the answer.
    You are right that only Africans can find the answers, and that good leaders would help, plus an idea of how to make the others leave.
    Hope to hear more from you.
    Georg Lennkh
    Your statement, Teni, is extremely vivid, electrifying- you have to continue.
    I have given years to think about the ‘why’. After more than ten years in development cooperation, I am sick and tired of comments here in Austria of the sort ‘Africa just has to…’. Perhaps the best piece of thought I came across in this context was Moussa Konaté’s ‘L’Afrique noire est-elle maudite?’ about stifling African tradition, and that African youth will be the answer.
    You are right that only Africans can find the answers, and that good leaders would help, plus an idea of how to make the others leave.
    Hope to hear more from you.
    Your statement, Teni, is extremely vivid, electrifying- you have to continue.
    I have given years to think about the ‘why’. After more than ten years in development cooperation, I am sick and tired of comments here in Austria of the sort ‘Africa just has to…’. Perhaps the best piece of thought I came across in this context was Moussa Konaté’s ‘L’Afrique noire est-elle maudite?’ about stifling African tradition, and that African youth will be the answer.
    You are right that only Africans can find the answers, and that good leaders would help, plus an idea of how to make the others leave.
    Hope to hear more from you.
    Georg Lennkh

  13. Richards

    An absolutely brilliantly written piece! It is filled with optimism and a call to action. Sadly, it is the same optimism that Kwame Nkruma, a well-known pan-Africanist had decades ago, to nought. I was also optimistic about the future of Africa, but not so much so anymore, as I get older. Sigh. Hopefully, maybe Teni and her generation can rekindle some hope before the sun sets. Africa oh my Africa……so much promise yet so little to show for it.

  14. Chinedu Onyegbula

    Great Article Teni, the passion and energy you take in writing demonstrates your frustration and and commitment to see a change happen. I couldn’t agree more with you that the problem with Africa is a failure of leadership but I must also add that we are Africans are also the future leaders that will lead the change and influence the solution options being considered and implemented. Your education is the platform to begin asking the tough questions, assessing options, breaking the norm, proffering home grown solutions and adapting them to fit our unique conditions and realities. Africa can only grow and develop when Africans rise up to the challenge that faces them and choose to do the right thing. Our leaders need to be empowered with the right skills, knowledge, and expertise; this can be achieved by having the right people ascribe for public office, the right people chosen or appointed to serve in those positions, and the right people supporting them creating enabling environments and support systems that drive innovation, knowledge sharing, capacity building, and learning that translates to opportunity and solution implementation based on the shared interests of economic growth and prosperity.

  15. Lauretta Ndoma-Egba

    My sentiments about the global order were thoroughly expressed in this piece.

    As Africans we really must take collective action in refusing to be defined by our problems, and work towards strengthening our institutions that are seemingly in the right direction. This would take donkey years but it’s worth a try.

  16. Raphael Agyapong

    Nice piece there Teni! Keep it up. Africans need to rethink about who are and how we live. I see so much passion and energy in this piece and these should compel us to cause the change we all expect to see.

  17. Ayodeji Adimula

    This is an awesome piece. I absolutely enjoyed reading every word! You presented the African perspective in a clear but deep language. Definitely stirred many emotions within me. Well done.