The plight of the African intellectual – a moral fable

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

By William Easterly

Once upon a time, there were two great lands: Donorlandia and Africa. Donorlandia had many intellectuals who opined about the solutions for Africa, who received much attention in the media of Donorlandia. Few African intellectuals received as much, or even any, such attention when they discussed their own land.

Donorlandia’s intellectuals could work for great universities, or for think tanks, or for aid agencies. What’s more the aid agencies and charitable foundations often gave no-strings-attached funding to the independent intellectuals at think tanks or universities who worked on Africa, or created new Research Centers on Africa. Independent African intellectuals had small cash-starved African universities or think tanks, and they received hardly any no-strings-attached funding from Donorlandia’s aid agencies or charitable foundations.

The main option for African intellectuals was to work for aid agencies, where they would no longer be independent, be reporting to non-African bosses, and where their insider perspectives on Africa were seldom appreciated. Independent African intellectuals who criticized aid agencies were vilified and marginalized.

Intellectuals from Donorlandia led individual aid projects or research studies for Africa. Intellectuals from Africa could work for these projects or studies or research centers, but they had little hope that their insights about local culture or conditions would be respected or reflected in the projects and studies. Projects or studies or research centers led by independent African intellectuals did not receive funding from aid agencies or charitable foundations.

Some of the very best African intellectuals left Africa and became independent in the great universities or think tanks or research centers of Donorlandia. But the aid agencies and charitable foundations disqualified these African intellectuals from leading projects or research centers, due to Fear of the evil spirit called Brain Drain.

Donorlandia had once given international scholarships to encourage even more intellectuals in other lands like America-Latina — so much so that by later times, such intellectuals were now making policy and dealing as equals with aid agencies in America-Latina. But Fear of Brain Drain had paralyzed aid agencies and charitable foundations in Africa in later times, and there were few or no international scholarships to encourage African intellectuals.

African intellectuals bravely persisted under such adverse conditions, believing that one day many more of them also could be independent, that one day they could lead their own projects, think tanks, and research centers, that one day they could be the ones to comment on their own continent and receive the attention they deserved.

Editorial note: This fable is based on many informal discussions I have had over many years with African intellectuals, who for obvious reasons do not want their names used (with the occasional rare exception). I use the literary form of a fable precisely because of this restriction, which means none of the statements can be verified. If it resonates with you the reader, then maybe it’s of some use. If not, then feel free to dismiss it for lack of verifiable proof.