Ready to Lead: Encouraging African Youth to Enter Public Service
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On July 22, 2016, the Women in Public Service Project and the Africa Program co-hosted the event “Ready to Lead: Encouraging African Youth to Enter Public Service” at the Wilson Center. Gwen Young, Director of Global Women’s Leadership Initiative and the Women in Public Service Project (WPSP), facilitated the conversation with Hadeel Ibrahim, Executive Director of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation.
Ms. Young opened the discussion by asking Ms. Ibrahim about the work of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation. In discussing the inspiration for the foundation, Ms. Ibrahim asserted that Africa’s underdevelopment was largely attributed to a failure of leadership. While she recognized and pointed to the prevailing systematic discrimination Africa faces, she upheld that “we can’t attribute everything to the colonial period.” Ms. Ibrahim went on to highlight the roles that government officials should play to achieve good governance: “We want heads of states to be risk takers and the surrounding government to be risk managers.” She related this point to one of the major functions of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, the Ibrahim Index of African Governance, which measures the quality of governance in each African country.
Ms. Ibrahim explained that each year, the Mo Ibrahim Foundation awards the Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership to a former African head of state that demonstrated exceptional governance and democratic leadership during their tenure in office. However, in the past few years, the foundation has elected not to bestow the award to a leader. Ms. Ibrahim emphasized that the standard for good governance should not be lowered to accommodate African countries.
The conversation shifted as Ms. Young inquired about the status of youth on the African continent and how to engage them in the politics of their respective countries. In response, Ms. Ibrahim highlighted the age gap that exists between those in public service and the people they serve in many African countries. She talked about the distrust of public institutions by much of the population as a result of corrupt or poor governance. While she acknowledged that it would be difficult to win back the people’s faith and trust of their government, it is important to engage the continent’s greatest resource – its people. “By 2050, half of the young people in the world will be African. Therefore, how do we harness and leverage Africa’s greatest resource to our advantage?” She urged young people to create their own movement and take control of the system rather than abandoning it all together.
Continuing with the theme of engaging young people, Ms. Young inquired about the role technology can play in connecting with the youth. Ms. Ibrahim responded that the role of technology is often overestimated, instead pointing to the impact of authentic grassroots organizing. “When people take to the streets and are willing to put their lives on the line, that’s when real change happens.”
Next Ms. Young asked about the new Africa Center in New York City, a project which Ms. Ibrahim has been working to get off the ground since 2014. Ms. Ibrahim described the center as “an Afro-futurist institution” where people can come to learn about the future of continent and therefore of the world. The center stands to be a beacon for the African continent and serve as a means for the United States to see opportunities across Africa.
Connecting the conversation to the Women in Public Service Project, Ms. Young asked Ms. Ibrahim how she perceives the path and impact of engaging women into the political space. Ms. Ibrahim discussed the dominant role of the matriarch as a consistent component in African societies. After highlighting that women drive a majority of the economic activity on the African continent, she asserted, “There is a paradigm in the African imagination that recognizes the strength of a powerful woman that I don’t think exists in the same way in America. I experienced ageism in Africa and sexism in the global north.” She concluded by highlighting the multiplier effect of having more women in public service. “The more women we see in political life, the greater the impact of the multiplier effect in reshaping policies.”
To close the conversation, Ms. Ibrahim and Ms. Young circled back to the idea of governance on the African continent. “Governance is the most efficient translation of resources into outcomes.” She upheld that good governance must be a standard not only in the public sector, but across all sectors. She pointed to three key components of good governance: accountability, transparency, efficiency.
Ms. Ibrahim fielded a number of questions from the audience regarding the role of mentors and how to ensure diversity in the push for good leadership and governance. She stated that partnering with elders is absolutely key to the success of integrating youth into political office. She criticized the over-amplification of voices like her own in the fight for change, yet recognized the importance of the platform she and others have been given to shift the conversation about the African continent. She discussed how Africans are able to construct their narrative and accurately represent the diversity on the African continent through organizations like the Africa Center. While she conceded that it’s difficult to transplant democracy and teach effective leadership, she reiterated the importance of engaging with the population to enact change.