Formality Bias

The New York Times review of The Bright Continent is out. Which is exciting. You can read it here. I appreciate Lydia Polgreen’s considered reflection on the themes and stories in the book. Two mistakes merit correction. One is the assertion that the book

doesn’t really address the question that nags many scholars and analysts. Rapid growth in Africa has not been accompanied by rapid expansion of employment opportunities, which means that many people, especially the young and least educated, are left to hope that a rising tide will lift their boats.

There’s no defense of this statement. A full chapter of the book, “The Youth Map,” grapples exclusively with this problem.

“While the booming GDP growth rates for African economies this decade are certainly cause for celebration, the youth of Africa have remained mostly untouched,” I write.

I speak with former Nigerian Education Minister Obiageli Ezekwesili, who “described a young man asking her why the region’s massive growth hadn’t reached him in the form of a job. She cringed and called the failure to translate paper prosperity into tangible opportunities “the policymaker’s nightmare.” The chapter goes on to discuss successful vocational training schemes for this demographic. As for the African Leadership Academy, I agree with Polgreen that “elite schools cannot reach as far as Africa needs,” and share the story of Bridge Academies, a low cost private schooling system for the mass market.

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Likewise, Polgreen’s account of my reporting on Kayode Fayemi, the governor of Ekiti State in Nigeria, is inaccurate. She writes, “Fayemi is one of her story’s heroes for his efforts to stamp out corruption and make government more effective and accountable.” Polgreen has met and interviewed Fayemi for a story in the Times, which perhaps clouded her assessment. Fayemi is a politician who succeeded a “hysterically corrupt” incumbent, but my reporting celebrates his role in encouraging the private sector to spur local employment. His work to attract a Samsung training center in Ekiti is the focus of his appearance in the text, where he is quoted thusly:

“I don’t know that government can always be in charge… My job is to create an enabling environment.”

This latter misrepresentation helps frame a debate that is essential for Africa’s future. Indeed, it is the reflexive emphasis on states reforming at a glacial pace—what I refer to in the book as “formality bias”—that my reporting seeks to disrupt. Rather than being held hostage by centralized systems that do not meet their needs, the entrepreneurs and organizers in The Bright Continent opt for immediate, local action. Contrary to Polgreen’s assertion, there are many scalable, dynamic interventions that effectively substitute for state dysfunction. I would know–I spent three years looking for them!

The debate is one I welcome, though. We are going to mix it up on April 22nd at the New America Foundation in New York. Please RSVP!

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