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How not to promote local talent in this era of diversity

Thursday October 01 2020

I once was a student of a New Zealand theology professor – a man of great integrity who had so much influence over my life in the past. The professor used to make statements like ‘leadership isn’t the ability to do 1,000 men’s work but to put 1,000 men to work’. A good student that I was, I perfunctorily internalised those words.

The professor was, however, misguided about several things. For example, the opinion that ‘Caucasians are naturally gifted mentally, Asians spiritually, and Africans physically’. That may sound professorial but, it’s a very poorly digested idea.

His was one of the many theories that attempt to explain the disparity of development levels between peoples of different races. Whether it is Marx’s Capital, Acemoglu’s Institution, Hegel’s Zeitgeist, Diamond’s Gun, Germs and Steel, Ferguson’s Killer Apps, Onyeani’s Spider Web, Mills’ Leadership Choice or if you wish, the Makakalan Worldview theory, these have been staple food for historians and philosophers for centuries.

Despite the many theories, in today’s politically correct era, few dare argue that genetics or race is one of the determining factors, especially after the WW2 Nazi fiasco. Remarkably, the grandmaster Lee Kuan Yew was one of them.

LKY argued that Jews’ success in the world, for example, as evidenced, in the number of Nobel laureates among them, is the function of genetics. He, therefore, advocated for intermarriages between high IQ individuals and for female university graduates to have more children.

It’s usually unwise to ignore what LKY recommends, but I think the great man took his meritocratic ideas a bit too far here, don’t you? I haven’t seen anything in science to substantiate the view that race or genetics predisposes any group to superior performance with respect to economics or development. Alternatively, evidence suggests that when you expose members of any community to favorable factors, they will be as competitive as others. This is what the people of China are demonstrating to the world so capably today.

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Discussions about race are often accompanied with strong doses of guilt. And guilt is a great motivator of behavior, however fleeting that may be. Some might rush to prove that they are cool, often through wrong ways.

Firstly, by celebrating Africans for mediocrity.

Not so long ago I was informed of an African student who was given an award for his innovation. Knowing the nitty-gritties of his field, I wondered what is it that he did to merit that. What I found out was not innovative in any way. So, why award someone for something quite average? The last thing that Africans want is to be patted patronisingly on their backs as if they are toddlers who have just been potty trained! A very wrong way of promoting local talents.

Secondly, by offering natives half-baked training.

A while ago, I was sent to China for a two-week training by my employer. Since I found others who had been with the company for a long time who hadn’t been given such an opportunity, that was a big deal. I desired to do an expert level course but the management argued that I hadn’t stayed long enough with the company. However, when in China, I found people who were fresh from school attending that course. My future competitiveness in the organisation was being determined not by my capabilities but by executive decisions. Wrong way to deal with local talents.

Thirdly, providing similar but unequal opportunities.

Many MNOs have management or technical programmes that are highly competitive. The right people will be sent to London, Zurich, or Dubai for training. If you are not right, you are sent for retreats in Bagamoyo, Zanzibar or Arusha! If you are only good to work in Tanzania, you don’t need global connections or to have New York and the like in your CV, do you? Wrong way to deal with locals.

Fourthly, providing equal positions but unequal pay.

So, the Magufuli government is tightening the enforcement of immigration rules? Hire some locals, but they can do with 30 to 50 percent of salaries their peers used to collect. Wrong way.

Finally, failure to recognise highly qualified but underprivileged candidates.

A certain first-class graduate sent his application somewhere and was rejected because his application had ‘grammatical errors’! This is Tanzania, if you are looking for grammatical perfection you might as well reject everyone. But if you reflect on how a village boy goes to a special school and become a PhD in Mathematics, you will be humbled by his true capabilities. Grammar, really? Wrong.

Locals need equal opportunities. This sometimes involves taking corrective steps to get people represented in areas where they are underrepresented because of their backgrounds. This is the argument that was so eloquently made by Prof Henry L. Gates in his marvelous documentary series Black Americans: Many Rivers to Cross.

Many organisations behave the way they do in Tanzania because we let them. In other nations, they behave quite differently. If we were to require compliance for local talent development before we award them huge contracts, they would have complied. This is the least that we can do – after all, they take a lot.

Many Tanzanians have crossed many rivers to get to where they are. But they can get even further. Let’s help them achieve that. The right way.