The Might of Might – Part 1

“The Future hurts. But only once. Denying it stings forever”

When Ms. Christine Lagarde, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) Managing Director, swung through Accra in December 2018, just before the festive break to attend the ‘Future of Work in sub-Saharan Africa’ conference, she should probably have donned a suitably chic red robe with white trims and allowed herself to be whisked around in a reindeer drawn sleigh through the streets of the capital.

This was the time of year for the dispensing of goodies to those who had been nice rather than naughty. No one could fault sub-Saharan African nations for their efforts to comply with the strictures of the IMF and also actually deliver on economic performance. Indeed, by their own figures, the IMF ranked eight Sub-Saharan nations in the top twenty fastest growing economies in 2018 including our very own Ghana.

She commended the Ghanaian economy, and said was in a better place than it was a couple of years ago. We had made important gains towards economic stability, including inflation, which was now in single figures. A primary surplus had also been achieved in 2017 for the first time in fifteen years. Ghana was also one of only nine sub-Saharan African countries that met the Millennium Development Goal of halving extreme poverty.

On the business front too, we were in equal measure surprised and gratified to learn from a late 2018 Mckinsey report that, to the befuddlement of polled business executives across Africa and the world, around 400 companies in Africa  have annual revenues of $1 billion or more.

Most respondents offered a figure of no higher of 50. Several even suggested ‘zero’. Whether the Africa-based executives harboured unresolved low esteem issues is perhaps a debate for another day. All the same, these 400 companies were on average both faster growing and more profitable than their peers globally.

So, I guess, against this backdrop of upbeat news, we could be excused for believing the IMF Managing Director during her trip would dish out further largesse to encourage more good behaviour on our part.

Didn’t happen. The Ghanaian government had already determined to exit the IMF’s Extended Credit Facility (ECF) agreement, which it entered into in 2015, at the end of 2018. So our nation was putting on its big boy pants and declining any further IMF financial assistance, at least in the meantime.  Ms. Lagarde therefore served up lashings of general advice and more narrowly focused prescriptions.

Before the event she had e-mailed answers to submitted questions from a leading local newspaper. She emphasized ‘during the past two decades, sub-Saharan Africa created nine million new jobs per year, keeping up with population growth.

As a result, the share of the population living in extreme poverty declined to 41 per cent in 2015 from 59 per cent in 1993.’ She however cautioned ‘…even faster progress will be needed over the next two decades, as sub-Saharan Africa’s labour force is projected to grow at twice the rate of the last decade. Twenty million jobs will have to be created every year during that time frame to provide employment opportunities for young labour market entrants.’  We are surely going to have to run much faster just to stay in place.

Ms. Lagarde further riffed: ‘Over the last centuries, three industrial revolutions have fundamentally changed the way we work, the way we live. The introduction of the steam engine, electricity and computers has made humans more productive and yielded unprecedented improvement in living standards.

We are now looking at a new revolution led by technological advances, in part driven by machines starting to work and think by themselves, the so called artificial intelligence.’
She explained how these advances are fundamentally disrupting the practices and processes of the traditional workplace.

Technology is enabling us to improve work outcomes exponentially and replace an ever increasing repertoire of human tasks with automation. The upside to technological innovation is the ability to leapfrog legacy infrastructure, while the obvious downside is socially corrosive widespread job loss.

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She confirmed the goal of the ‘Future of work’ conference was to ‘foster discussions on the policies needed to address these challenges and enable the strong creation of high-quality jobs in sub-Saharan Africa.’ Apropos of the forward-looking theme of the conference she dutifully quoted an African proverb: ‘The eye crosses the river before the body’.

All rather predictable from the IMF Managing Director up until this point. Then, voila, she sprung on us a lofty conceptual soufflé: a set of three possible scenarios, which were used to determine how technology, demographics and urbanization, climate change and global economic integration could interact with each other to shape the Future of Work in sub-Saharan Africa. These were ‘Africa Arisen’, ‘Africa Adrift’, and finally ‘Africa for Africa’. Needless to say, we were eager to understand what precisely each scenario entailed.

Ms. Lagarde helpfully obliged. The decidedly upbeat ‘Africa Arisen’ scenario was one in which ‘technology increases productivity for all and global economic cooperation leads to decisive action to mitigate the adverse effects of climate change and sub-Saharan Africa successfully harnesses new technologies to create an emerging, vibrant middle class.’ This would require a ‘well-trained labour force with the right skills, which meant that education should be a key priority.’

She therefore urged sub-Saharan African governments to implement policy measures in education and digital connectivity that made ‘Africa Arisen’ readily attainable. Of course, there was a pointed caveat: Ms. Lagarde noted that despite its relative achievements in primary education, the region was woefully under-performing in secondary education, with only 30 percent of its children in secondary education. This ranked it lowest in the world.

She applauded the government on the Free Senior High School programme, but cautioned that ‘Simply increasing enrolment is unlikely to be enough.’ She emphasized: ‘We need to promote digital literacy and identify skills that will allow the next generation to work with and take advantage of technology rather than be replaced by it.’ According to her, that is why an additional area of focus should be the provision of digital infrastructure, as digital access was a driver of innovation.

At this point, I was already reaching out for my copy of the excellent Strategic Reframing: The Oxford Scenario Planning Approach by Angela Wilkinson and Rafael Ramirez

As defined early in this remarkable book, ‘Scenario planning is a methodology that uses the inherent human capacity for imagining the future to understand better the present situation and to identify possibilities for new strategy.’ The Oxford Scenario Planning Approach (OSPA) supports and informs new approaches to strategy and policy in contexts that exhibit Turbulence, Uncertainty, Novelty, and Ambiguity (TUNA).  Its originators offer the OSPA as a useful methodology for intervening effectively in an unpredictable world.

The co-authors of the book go on to explain ‘…We have experienced the “might of might” whereby scenario planning intervention enable people to see their situation anew and, in doing so, discover new possibilities and options for action.’  Might is ordinarily classed as a modal verb that is used to express the possibility that something will happen or be done, or that something is true although not very likely. Who knew it had such super powers?

So, quite clearly, Ms. Lagarde was unleashing the “might of might” to reframe. That is, in the playbook of the OSPA, ‘to redefine the official future or given frame, to generate plausible alternatives, and in effect generate new shared knowledge and insights.

By rehearsing actions with these alternative frames, new and better options for the action can be identified and contribute to a perception of the present situation.’ OSPA asserts scenarios enable the process of meaning making – framing, reframing and reperception, which can create a powerful shift in group think and individual mindsets.

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‘Reperception happens when people experience what the future frame feels like and what options it opens up (or closes down).

She certainly did not take prisoners in her subsequent alternative frame, ‘Africa Adrift’.  A most undesirable scenario, where ‘automation leads to reshoring of manufacturing to advanced economies, which means that the traditional manufacturing export-led growth model will be unviable. Large investments in infrastructure that promotes manufacturing exports are wasted.

This leaves African countries indebted and ill-positioned to take advantage of the new opportunities in the digital economy. With limited resources, governments fail to make the necessary investments in connectivity and education.’

The third frame Ms. Lagarde submitted was called ‘Africa for Africa’. 

‘This is a world where trade tensions increase and inward-looking policies become more common place in many parts of the world. These changes are fueled by technology radically displacing workers and increasing income inequality. African leaders respond to the challenging external environment by taking decisive action to boost regional trade, which in turn helps cushion the negative effects for the region’s citizens.’

She suggested the recent signing of the Continental Free Trade Agreement was evidence such an outcome was possible and lauded the new agreement as a positive first step towards creating an integrated pan-African market.

Intriguing thoughts indeed from Ms. Lagarde.  What I struggled to understand is why these scenario options were pitched from the IMF to sub-Saharan Africa rather than in the reverse direction. Should it not be African think tanks and thought leaders champing at the bit to leverage the ‘might of might’ and throw out alternative future scenarios to a captivated audience?

Why should Ms. Lagarde and the IMF have all the fun? So indulge my pitching a few more frames regarding the future of sub-Saharan African:

‘Africa Critical’ is an Africa that adopts a critical thinking mindset in addressing the current and future challenges it confronts. The first step in the critical thinking process is an ability to grasp or identify the situation and determine the factors that may influence it without bias or prejudice. It is in the main powered by curiosity or a strong desire to know or learn something new, or, perhaps more modestly, afresh.

An objective analysis or evaluation of the identified situation assists you in forming a judgement, and is a guide to belief and action. ‘Africa Critical’ involves the capacity for historical self-awareness and a variety of methodological approaches to problem solving.

‘Africa Open’ is an Africa that is open-minded. Open to novelty, responsive to change, and receptive to difference. The product of such a stance should be readiness, a willingness or a state of being prepared for something. As the philosopher, and theologian Franz Rosenzweig claimed: ‘The highest things cannot be planned: for them readiness is everything.’

Then, there is ‘Africa Green’. An Africa that is food secure, ecological resilient, and lives by a sustainability ethos. It would adopt the latest innovations in agro-tech to create a new sustainable green economy, and champion, financial, social, and digital inclusion, and life-long skills training,

Finally, there is ‘Africa Dark’, where African nations blithely ignore the accelerating challenges of technological disruption, climate change, and tear-away demographic growth and cling to a business as usual approach in conducting their affairs. In this scenario, instability is the default position, and states will be inclined to adopt repressive policies and practices in order to control and subjugate its increasingly disaffected youth.

Akinwumi Adesina, the President of the African Development Bank, ruefully observed in a recent interview ‘a third of Africa’s youth is unemployed. Another third is underemployed and unhappy.’ He rightly concludes that if you have a lot of young people who are unhappy, that’s going to create or worsen political, economic, and social fragility.

By Kofi Aboagye

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