Over a decade ago I was in a new white SUV, being driven by a rental company driver in in a rural area of northern Sierra Leone and observed an interesting sight: wherever we drove by dwelling places in the village, we saw people sitting with their hands on their faces, looking miserable and sad.
This was surprising to me, because I was familiar with this village and this behavior was not familiar to me. I had been coming to this village regularly for the past two months to engage some of the farmers in the village in an effort to connect them more directly to urban markets.
One of the more industrious farmers was Mammy Fatmata, a middle-aged widow with a twinkle in her eye that belied the toughness of her character. She had lost her husband nine years before and decided to pour her efforts into business, using her creativity and ingenuity to hire her fellow villagers to cultivate vast swathes of land and leveraging her relationship with her former schoolmate to secure a warehouse and thresher to process the harvest so that she could produce bags of processed rice which she sold to the World Food Programme.
When I arrived, Mammy Fatmata was surprised to see me jump out of a new car.
“Hello, Mr. Modupe, welcome! I was expecting you, but not in a brand new car!”
I explained that it was a rental car that we were using because our regular company car had broken down during the week. We regularly would visit the village in our company car, which was a rather old Mercedes Benz jeep that had clearly seen better days but was still sturdy enough to ply the road in rural Sierra Leone as long as I drove it slowly and carefully.
After we had exchanged pleasantries and were relaxing over a cup of palm wine, I asked her what was going on in the village. She did not understand my question at first. I explained to her that as we were driving through the village I saw people moping around with their hands cupping their jaws and wondered if there had been a death in the village or some other sad event. She said no, there had not been. Then she thought for a moment and then started smiling and even laughed a little.
“Mr. Modupe, I know what was wrong. You came in an NGO car. They thought you were one of those NGOs, so they have to look sad for them!” We laughed about it a bit as I realized that what she said made sense. The villagers had learned that the best strategy of extracting money or donations from charitable organizations was to look like someone in desperate need of charity.
So the villagers who normally would have been going about their business, having seen the pile of dust a mile away kicked up by a new white rental car driven by a zealous driver at high speed, quickly assumed their positions of “poverty” to ensure that the visit of an NGO (non-governmental organization) would not be “wasted”.
Five years before this incident, I flew with a white American classmate of mine from the USA to Sierra Leone to conduct leadership training in Kenema, the Eastern regional capital of Sierra Leone. It was a wonderful experience for my classmate (“Rusty”) who was enjoying his first trip to West Africa and soaking up all the cultural nuances of life in Sierra Leone.
Rusty was an elected city councilor who had his sights set on running for the Mayor of his home city, and he was passionate about development and making the world a better place. At that time the shortest route to leave the capital city of Freetown and head to the provinces was through a 6-mile stretch called the Regent-Grafton road.
The Regent-Grafton road was untarred and rough, and going through that route would take 45 minutes. However, it was still shorter than the alternative route, which required driving through the central business district of Freetown and was likely to take 60 – 90 minutes because of traffic even though the road was tarred and comparatively much easier on the car. Rusty and I used the Regent-Grafton road to leave Freetown on our way to Kenema and Rusty asked why such a critical road had not been repaired and paved. I told him that I did not know.
While in Kenema, we went for dinner to a nearby hotel restaurant and met a gentleman who introduced himself as “Honorable Mr. James” (name changed). Rusty and I introduced ourselves and Rusty shared that he was from the USA. Mr. James explained that he was the Member of Parliament for the Regent township near Freetown and he was in Kenema to visit a friend.
Rusty was immediately intrigued because he recognized that this man was the elected official responsible for the area where the Regent-Grafton road exists. He asked Mr. James about the condition of the Regent-Grafton road and Mr. James said “Yes, Regent-Grafton road is a very important road and it needs to be fixed. I have been saying this for some time now. And you know, the people who use that road the most are the Americans. Their embassy is located at the beginning part of that road and they use the road all the time to drive upcountry. I have told the Minister that we should tell the Americans to fix the road.”
Rusty was amazed. He asked Mr. James whether the road belonged to the US Embassy. “No, but they are the ones using it. They should fix the road!” Rusty patiently explained to Mr. James that he could spearhead an effort through the government of Sierra Leone to raise public funds through bonds to finance the repair of the road. Mr. James was having none of it. He kept insisting that the Americans should fix the road. And he then told Rusty that he should tell his embassy that they need to do this. I felt so embarrassed. I kept wondering to myself, “When did we become a nation of beggars?”
For the past four decades, African countries have been plagued with leaders whose brains have atrophied to the point that they are unable to think of solutions to their own countries’ or communities’ problems and they continually look for an external savior to come and save them. Thankfully, in the last five years this debilitating condition has been recognized and criticized by Africans themselves.
From President Paul Kagame to President Akufo-Addo to Economist Dambisa Moyo, more leaders in Africa are starting to recognize the vicious trap that is inherent in the regular receipt of donations and aid. In his book “Toxic Charity”, Robert Lupton shares an unfortunate progression that is caused by (sometimes) well-intentioned donors: give once and you elicit appreciation; give twice and you create anticipation; give three times and you create expectation; give four times and it becomes entitlement; give five times and you establish dependency.
From political leaders to community leaders to family leaders, we have been boiled like frogs into a state of dependency and become a nation of beggars. This situation is not unique to Sierra Leone. In my travels all over Africa (with few exceptions), I have seen similar situations and dependency-based thinking in existence in many countries in Africa.
This condition of dependency is sadly not limited to public sector leaders or community leaders. Even in the private sector there is a worrying trend of dependency that is being created. Entrepreneurs in Africa are now far more desirous of finding and attracting grant funding than attracting investors. Why? Because grant money is viewed by entrepreneurs as “free money” and investor funds require the entrepreneur to give up equity stake in their company.
Unfortunately we do not realize that this “free money” creates dependency, and it comes with an opportunity cost. When a company gets investor funds, the investor does not only invest her/his capital; the investor will seek to protect their capital by supporting the business with networks, advice, expertise and oversight…all the support that a fledgling company needs whether the entrepreneur realizes it or wants it. So, in rejecting investor funds (or bank loans) in favor of “free money”, the entrepreneur actually forfeits the critical advice, networks, and expertise that s/he needs to be successful.
Too often, the company that receives the grant money does not manage to demonstrate a positive return on investment after five years and may not last much longer without further infusion of more grant funding. Donations hurt the African economy in other pernicious ways.
Our agricultural entrepreneurs cannot survive or grow their businesses because they have to compete against donated food or food produced by farmers in other countries who are subsidized by their government and whose product is then “sold” into Africa at a price that is not indicative of fair competition. Our African policy leaders are allowing the tax free importation of foods (e.g., onions, rice, corn) that can be locally produced but place high taxes on goods (cars, electronics) that cannot be produced locally. That is the result of dependency thinking.
Twenty-seven years ago, I was broke; I needed money to pursue my Masters education and I had nothing in my pocket. My mentor took me to an evening event attended by an exclusive group of wealthy people and during the evening, he shared with some of these people that I had recently recovered from war wounds and was desirous of pursuing my education further and needed US$35,000 to do my Masters at a university that I had already been accepted to.
That night, after quiet conversations with a couple of the wealthy men, I received two offers: one was from a gentleman who offered to pay for my Masters degree in exchange for me working for his company for a period of four years after I completed my masters, so I would pay it back through service. The other offer was from the founder of one of the first internet service providers in America, and he offered to simply give me the US$35,000. I was overjoyed and my first instinct was to accept the second offer of free money.
Thankfully my mentor was wiser than I was. He cautioned me not to do this. “There is no such thing as a free lunch, Modupe. At least with the first offer you know what the price is. If you take the second offer, one day that guy is going to show up and ask you for something and you will not be able to refuse and it may cost you a lot more than US$35,000.”
I took my mentor’s advice and I was glad I did. I completed my Masters programme and worked for my benefactor for six years before I left the company and moved on with my career. I have not regretted that decision ever. Today, I support people who want to pursue their education, but I never give the money for free because I do not want to create dependency and in the process turn young people into mental slaves.
During the slave trade, non-African nations enslaved Africans’ bodies and forced Africans to work in their plantations for free.
During the colonial era, non-African nations enslaved our land and forced us to work in our own plantations and give them the harvest for a pittance.
In the post-colonial era, non-African nations have enslaved African minds and we (Africans) willingly and unwittingly give up our opportunity for self-development and wealth in favor of handouts that keep us poor and malnourished.
Dear African leader, please remember that there is no such thing as a free lunch. You have the ability to achieve the ideal future you want for your organization, company or community. If you need additional resources, find a way to earn it or lend it or acquire it in a manner that is not free. Because true freedom is not found in charity, and charity does not lead to freedom.
>>>the writer is a scholar and practitioner of organizational development and leadership and a leadership Coach and Facilitator. Over the past three decades, he has successfully coached and trained leaders in Africa, North America, and Europe. His passion for leadership enhancement was born out of his experiences as a cadet in the U.S. Military Academy (West Point) and as a military officer serving in combat in the Sierra Leone Civil War where he was shot twice.
As the only Sierra Leonean with a Ph.D. in Leadership, Modupe was the founding Dean of the African Leadership University School of Business, an institution providing a Pan-African MBA degree to Africa’s mid-career professionals. He is the Founder and CEO of BCA Leadership (www.bcaleadership.com), an organization that has impacted over 3000 African leaders with coaching and knowledge-sharing services. He leads a team of thirty-two Coaches across Africa and he is the curator of The Made in Africa Leadership Conference. Contact Modupe through email at [email protected]
To register for The Made in Africa Leadership Conference scheduled for 12 & 13 June, 2024 in Nairobi in Kenya, visit www.bcaleadership.com