Sunday, October 5, 2008

What is "good enough" in Africa?

Walk into Dr. Patrick Awuah's modest, 15x15ft office in Accra Ghana and enter a clean, calm and (thankfully) air-conditioned future of Africa. The clean-cut, well spoken gentleman from the UC Berkley still shows signs of his computer engineering days: rimless glasses, a shiny silver Blackberry, and a pristine IBM Thinkpad within comfortable reach, desktop icons neatly arranged and all. However, sneak a peak just slightly to your right and note his collection of books crammed (alphabetized I'm sure) into an overwhelmingly large bookshelf in his tiny office at Ashesi University. Mohammad Yunnus' Bank to the Poor, Bill Clinton's Giving, Barack Obama's Audacity of Hope, Paul Farmer MD's Mountains Beyond Mountains, and even Three Cups of Tea. Patrick Awuah, an American educated Ghanaian, returned to Ghana to work with what he believes to be the key to economic opportunity in Ghana: education. Unlike many well intentioned social entrepreneurs, however, Patrick didn't just research barriers to tertiary education, which leave less than 5% of Ghanaians with university degrees; Patrick simply decided to found his own University.

Let's just assume that you avoid asking our question "Patrick, was it difficult starting a university from scratch in Ghana?" (He laughed for a while after that one, YES!!!!!!) and jump straight to the question about the principles on which Ashesi was so humbly founded less then 5 years ago. Patrick's perspective on social progress in Ghana is something like this: Corruption in government and business and life in general is hindering much-needed growth in Ghana's economy. This corruption, he argues, is especially habitual zed in Ghanaian higher-education where cheating goes hand in hand with memorization, and uncreative thinking. His idea is to impact students in their final years before entering the workforce, leaving a lasting impression by educating both "ethical and entrepreneurial leaders." Additionally, because the proportion of students who receive college degrees is so small, he assumes that many or most of college students will be filling the shoes of CEO's, lawyers and presidents: just the kind of hot-shots needed for structural, societal change in Ghana.

So here are some of the ways Patrick hopes to save souls for Ghana: For the first two years at Ashesi University students are immersed in what is essentially a liberal arts education: economics, English, history and more. In the following two years students begin to specialize in Business Administration, Computer Engineering or Accounting Information Systems, the only three majors that Ashesi offers. Before graduating students must complete four seminars and a generous helping of community service. The seminars build on one another and you could even argue that the U.S. system of higher education could learn a thing or four: "What is a great leader?", "What is a good society?", "Economy of the good society", "Leadership Service". Throughout the course of these lectures, discussions and readings students are exposed to a range of perspectives from Adam Smith to Karl Marx and Martin Luther King to John McCain (Actually probably not McCain because the entire continent of Africa is obsessed with Barrack Obama!). In addition, students are even offered a special honor code option after they have completed several seminars. If an entire class is willing to sign their name to honesty, tests from that point on will not be proctored by any "adult" in the room.

The final part of our conversation with Patrick focused on the issue money. We bluntly questioned the ability of an expensive and elite private school to provide opportunity to a representative generation of young Ghanaians. His response and the discussion that followed was thought provoking: Ashesi University is simultaneously the most expensive as well as the most inexpensive university in Ghana depending on a student's financial aid package. Of course most universities, unless your buildings are covered with ivy, struggle to find donations to make their education as affordable as possible. Ashesi, however, is especially cursed at the moment in finding donors because the facilities, staff and faculty are already world class. I must admit, having visited a handful of colleges in the developing world, Ashesi is not a palace, but it is extremely clean, well maintained, organized and staffed with what seem to be extremely competent professionals. To further illustrate this dilemma Patrick told us a story about a nearby orphanage. Several church groups from Europe had collaborated with a local NGO on a $10k project to build the orphanage. Arriving on the "grand-opening" day, the president of the local NGO toured the orphanage with church leaders from Europe and could only comment on the dismal sight of depressing grey concrete that would greet the children each morning. The NGO president argued, that only an additional $200 would have been necessary to paint the classrooms with bright and beautiful colors, ABC's and multiplication tables. In short, Patrick is deeply concerned that "misery sells rather than results" in the world of NGO donations. Westerner's are deeply moved to generosity by sights of pot-bellied children in dismal slums, but when it comes to supporting proven, world-class programs in developing world, the floors may seem a little too polished and shirts a little too pressed.

The novel Mountains Beyond Mountains is a wonderful story about doctor who struggles with a similar dilemma in heath care: providing human beings everywhere with the same first-rate health care we would expect in Western hospitals, regardless of financial costs and ultimately justified with the statement: "Because we can." I would have recommended this book to Patrick, but judging by it's prominent place on his bookshelf, it looks like he got to it way before me.



Patrick said...

this Patrick guy sounds pretty cool. I'm actually reading Banker to the Poor and Mountains Beyond Mountains right now. and Sam i believe you recommended Mountains Beyond Mountains to me.


African Woman said...
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