Tag Archives: Africa

“My brother knows the President!” or thoughts on the devaluation of talent in emerging economies

My tenure in Ghana goes back 33 years and during this entire time — whether Ghana was ruled by a military dictator or governed by a popularly-elected President — I made acquaintance with a great many people who claimed, with comical earnestness, that they are related to the Head of State or, if they are particularly self-deprecating, claim a brother, sister or cousin who “knows the President”.  Can it be that the President actually knows or is somehow related to every Ghanaian living both within the country and abroad?  Is that how a President in Ghana gets elected — democracy by consanguinity?  Does the person with the most blood relatives wins?

But this FOP (Friend of the President) mentality points up to a troubling characteristic of many emerging democracies: the perception that you have to know someone in order to get things done.  This implies that talent and performance matter far less than your personal connections.  What you know becomes less important than who you know.  So much for a meritocracy.

This FOP mentality (whether real or imagined) has profoundly sad consequences for any government.  It leads the electorate and foreign investors to conclude that every policy, no matter how well vetted, no matter how carefully crafted, can be circumvented if only you know the right people.  It perpetuates the stereotype that a dash here and a dash there will gain access that merit cannot. Even worse, it encumbers the most well-meaning and honest public servants — those who are bravely trying to install a government where decisions are made on the basis of the common good rather than on private enrichment.  The FOP mentality undermines the whole notion of representative government.  Indeed, I sense that those most frustrated by the FOP mentality are civic-minded government officials themselves — those whose portfolios are rendered meaningless if any shirttail relative can seek redress directly with those in highest office.  Why should they have to put up with such emasculation?

How often have I sat in ministerial anterooms while some emissary from the village demands the Minister’s time and attention for matters that have little bearing on the workings of government?  Yet Ghanaian culture practically demands that every relative gets access to those in power — as if public service and the holding of high office offers no other rewards than the granting of favors to members of one’s extended (and I mean extended with a capital “E”) family.  I have not been in the anteroom of a US cabinet secretary but I doubt that cousins and nephews are routinely allowed to drop by for a chat during the workday.  That said, Washington’s legions of highly compensated lobbyists serve as an object lesson that influence peddling as a means of obtaining government favor is not limited to emerging democracies.

Finally, the FOP card does a disservice to many in the NGO community.  Newly minted NGOs proudly tell me that their success is assured since they are partnering with a terrific Ghanaian who seems to know everybody — these NGOs confide with almost conspiratorial glee that they’ve found the one person who holds the keys to the kingdom.  I worry that they rely disproportionately on these Ghanaian fixers to get things done instead of investing in the hard-won and time-consuming work of building up reputations and results in their own right.

Both sides are to blame for perpetuating the lamentable FOP state of affairs: timid politicians unwilling to make decisions based on the merits of a case and favor-seeking private individuals and companies who importune upon under-resourced (and thereby overwhelmed) public servants.

It is my own experience that  hard work (and I mean years of hard work) gain results and that no single Ghanaian magically grants access or guarantees success — even if that person is the President himself.  As it should be.