What does Africa have to drive its development? Hafsat Abiola, President of Women in Africa Initiatives, an organization that supports African women’s economic empowerment, asked the question at a gender empowerment event in New York recently. The event was organized by UN Women and the UN’s Department of Global Communications.
Ms. Abiola was not referring to Africa’s natural resources; rather, her focus was on what should be Africa’s organizing principle around which socioeconomic development must revolve.
Her answer: “We can compete through our community… African communities get together to establish schools, put children in school if parents don’t have enough money to pay. We have a true spirit of support, inclusion and generosity.”
To put her idea in context, Ms. Abiola explained that the West’s economic success is private sector driven: the states provide an enabling environment for companies to make profit and expand operations—a kind of trickle-down economics in which the prosperity of the private sector benefits the society in the long term.
On the contrary, she added that the East’s development model is led by the state. “Africa cannot compete with the states of the East or the companies of the West. We can compete in another field: the community.” Africa has a rich history of community-led development. She recommended that such a model now needs to be developed.
Development that depends on a sense of community consists of educating the grassroots population and giving them microfinance opportunities based on a strategic intent, not just as a casual stimulus package. That way, she insisted, “We will be able to colonise our [Africa’s] wealth.”
Education needs to be reformed to fit the needs of Africa in today’s world. Ms. Abiola further advised: “Education has to be relevant for us, it has to be useful for us. And it also must be practical… so that Africans can have choices: if they cannot go this way, they can go the other way.”
Strengthening Africa’s educational system will also allow the youth to understand what is unique in Africa. Ms. Abiola’s perspective on development paradigms reflects her stays in the US and later in China, living and studying.
“My professor in China once told me, ‘the Chinese way cannot be your way because the Chinese way is based on what works for China. You must look at what can work for you in Africa.’”
A women’s rights activist, Ms. Abiola pointed out that empowering African women in a way that leads them to capture Africa’s wealth is a smart thing for leaders to do.
UN Women Adviser on Africa Tolulope Lewis-Tamoka said that although progress is being made regarding women’s empowerment in Africa, more needed to be done. Ms. Lewis-Tamoka commended the activism of Ms. Abiola and other women’s rights advocates. “Challenges to gender equality are many but all hands must be on deck as we dismantle all the obstacles,” she said.