Can A New Generation Of Africans Fight Corruption?

Oct 18, 2013
Originally published on April 23, 2015 4:19 pm

Part 4 of the TED Radio Hour episode Haves And Have-Nots.

About George Ayittey's TED Talk

Ghanaian economist George Ayittey lashes out against corrupt African leaders. He calls on a young, fast "cheetah generation" to take back the continent from complacent bureaucrats he calls hippos.

About George Ayittey

For years, George Ayittey has been speaking out against the corruption and complacency that he believes are the bedrock problems of many troubled African states.

"We call our governments vampire states, which suck the economic vitality out of the people," he says.

His book, Africa Unchained, has helped unleash a new wave of activism and optimism — especially in the African blogosphere, where his notion of cheetahs-versus-hippos has become a standard shorthand.

He says this cheetah generation is a "new breed of Africans," taking their futures into their own hands, instead of waiting for politicians to empower them.

Ayittey is a Distinguished Economist in Residence at American University in Washington, D.C.

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It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And our show this week is all about the haves and the have-nots, and ideas on how we got here and ways to fix it. So a few years ago, TED put together a conference that was all about Africa - poverty, problems, success stories and also some very blunt talk.


GEORGE AYITTEY: Help in Africa is noble, but help in Africa has been turned into a fear of the absurd. It's like the blind leading the clueless.

RAZ: This is George Ayittey, and he says when it comes to closing the gap between the haves and the have-nots, especially in Africa, money doesn't actually work.

AYITTEY: Since 1960, the West has pumped more than $600 billion into Africa in the form of aid, but there's nothing to show for it.

RAZ: George was born and raised in Ghana. He's an economist now and he lives in the U.S., but he still travels to Africa a lot, and he raises money to help small businesses there. And his recommendation for tackling poverty in Africa - to take the people he calls the hippos and replace them with the cheetahs.


AYITTEY: The Cheetah Generation is a new breed of Africans. They understand what accountability and democracy is. They're not going to wait for government to do things for them. That's the Cheetah Generation and Africa's salvation rests on the backs of these cheetahs. In contrast, of course, we have the Hippo Generation. The Hippo Generation are the ruling elites. You ask them to reform the economies, they're not going to reform it because they benefit from the rotten status quo.

Now there are a lot of Africans who are very angry - angry at a condition of Africa. Now we're talking about a continent which is not poor, it is rich in mineral resources, natural mineral resources, but the mineral wealth of Africa is not being utilized to lift its people out of poverty. There are certain things that we need to recognize. Africa's begging bowl leaks horribly. There are people who thinks that we should pour more money, more aid into this bowl, which leaks. What are the leakages? Corruption alone costs Africa $148 billion a year. Capital flight out of Africa, $80 billion a year. Let's take food imports. Every year, Africa spends $20 billion to import food. Now back in 1960s, Africa not only fed itself, it also exported food. Not anymore. We know that something has gone fundamentally wrong.

RAZ: I wonder, George, if - like, when people heard your TED Talk, I mean, some people must have said, why are you blaming Africa? I mean, the problem isn't just our own doing.

AYITTEY: See, you have to be an African in order to be able to appreciate that. When I was growing up, there were those who argued that, you know, oh, Africa is an innocent victim. They blame Africa's woes on the slave trade, western imperialism, colonialism and much of it is true. But, you know, it was a convenient alibi for African leaders to use to cover up their own failures. And there's a lot of reasons why African leaders, you know, were always - each time they drew up a budget, you know, they held a bowl in their hands and went to this, you know, western countries and begged for aid. But after a while, people got fed up and said that OK, look, colonialism didn't leave Africa in a good state, but there are also internal factors which have held Africa back - bad leadership, oppression, senseless civil wars, which have destroyed many African countries.

RAZ: I guess I wonder whether there's reasons to be optimistic?

AYITTEY: No, there is reason to be optimistic, and the reason to be optimistic comes from those that I call the Cheetah Generation.

RAZ: How old are they?

AYITTEY: Well, see, you're talking about Africans who are in their 30s and 40s. They don't subscribe to this colonial mentality and blame colonialism and that sort of thing. They can see things for themselves.

RAZ: So how can they help?

AYITTEY: Well, you know, I have spent a lot of time traveling in African villages. Poor families, they get up very early in the morning. They go to their farms. They break their back...

RAZ: OK. So at this point, let me just break in for a moment because George describes, in great detail, one of the projects he's working on in Ghana. And this is the part you should know.

AYITTEY: Most of the peasant farmers in Africa are women.

RAZ: The typical woman farmer...

AYITTEY: You know, let's suppose that, you know, this woman produces tomatoes.

RAZ: And she and the other farmers bring those tomatoes to the closest market.

AYITTEY: By carrying it on their heads.

RAZ: So they can carry 40 to 50 tomatoes max, but whatever they can't carry...

AYITTEY: ...They leave on their farms to rot.

RAZ: Which is why he says the farmers are always struggling just to get by. So what George is trying to do is to get those young Ghanians, the cheetahs...

AYITTEY: ...To set up, let's say, a tomato marketing company.

RAZ: And then that marketing company would go to the farmers and say...

AYITTEY: Grow as much tomatoes as possible. We have a truck. We will come and we can buy all the tomatoes that you want.

RAZ: So the cheetahs are the new middlemen, but everything else he's talking about - the traditional farming, the marketplace - that's pretty much business as usual.


AYITTEY: In traditional Africa, the means of production is privately owned, so owned by extended families. The extended family's system pulls its resources together. The own farms, they decide what to do, what to produce. They don't take any orders from their chiefs. And when they produce their crops, when they make a profit, it is theirs to keep. What do we do now? Go back to Africa's indigenous institutions. And this is where we charge the cheetahs to go into the informal sectors, the traditional sectors to instigate change from within. And I know that with the cheetahs, we can take Africa back one village at a time. Thank you very much.


RAZ: George Ayittey. He wrote a whole book on this. It's called "Africa Unchained." His full talk can be found at Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.