Amongst development professionals there is an anecdote that goes as follows: in Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso) in the 90s there was a man nicknamed “Doc” who had two resources: first skills, he could repair scooters like no one else. And second, he had a toolbox.
Doc informally repaired scooters in one of the town’s squares and had secured a good customer base. A husband and father, Doc had calculated the precise daily income he needed to sustain his family, and once he had reached that income he would stop working and pass on his toolbox to his brother for him to earn his income.
One day, World Bank experts on a visit in Ouagadougou offered Doc microfinance funding. With that they said he could invest in a building, open a proper garage, and in the name of liberal capitalism grow and prosper.
The anecdote goes that Doc replied: “What about my brother? What is he to do?”
Having been reported in a book entitled Besoin d’Afrique written by the former director of the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation, Christophe Guillemin, the former editor of French daily newspaper Le Monde, Eric Fottorino and writer and public servant, Erik Orsenna, this seems to suggest that the anecdote is true.
This is a good allegory for the necessity of African solutions to tackle African challenges. It also highlights the complexity of development, which can only be born out of the conflicting interests of various players. As well as the added complexity of the historical heritage which impacts relations between the different players involved.
This complexity was apparent at the 4th Africa Congress of Accountants (ACOA 17) which took place in Uganda in May. As for the previous edition, discussions at ACOA 17 were heavily focused on building a future informed by the past.
This bridge between the past and a better more sustainable future is no meagre affaire. On one hand, the opening ceremony demonstrated that talking is easy and that the past has a habit of lingering into the future – old habits die hard, as the idiom goes. The closing ceremony on the other hand, demonstrated that action in itself is not much more difficult: “Sweep your front yard and I sweep mine, and, low and behold, the whole world will be clean,” Patrick Lumumba said quoting the USA essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson.
In-between the opening and closing ceremony, the congress program revealed the sweeping tasks at hand, to name a few:
- Illicit financial flows are still crippling Africa, bearing the question of what the accountants and auditors are doing in that regard and whether they are part of the solution or the problem?
- Empowering women, while a hot topic globally, also remains a big issue in Africa where old habits and beliefs linger in the present.
- The question of who benefits from development partnership. When a western or global professional accountancy organisation (PAO) act as a development partner to an African PAO, who benefits the most?
- Harnessing technology and fostering the talent of the next generations
- Reforming public sectors which are often under staffed and under skilled
The list goes on and while each items need sweeping, they can’t be looked at in isolation, as Republic of Uganda President Yoweri Museveni said in his keynote speech during the opening ceremony. And as Lumumba complemented in the closing ceremony: change will only be achieved through political hygiene. If Africa gets its politics right the rest will follow just like the tail follows the dog: attached to it.