Obama’s GES a Not So New Beg Inning [opinion]

Once again, I find myself doing the lonely thing of expressing my concern that Africa is going to come out humiliated by the Obama administration after the Global Entrepreneurship Summit.

The Kenyan media is going gaga about Obama finally visiting his fatherland Kenya, reducing his visit to a homecoming rather than questioning the interests of the US being served by the visit. We saw this in August last year during the US-Africa Summit which left Africa with egg on her face.

I got interested in the GES because I thought it was yet another conference in Africa on innovation, education and entrepreneurship, conferences which are beginning to get on my nerves because of their stereotypical themes. The conferences usually blame African institutions of learning for teaching the youth to expect employment, and then tell the African youth not expect employment and instead go for entrepreneurship.

So I wanted to know which philanthropist is behind this new initiative, only to find that it is the White House itself! Apparently, the GES is Obama’s foreign policy baby, sparked off by a speech in Cairo in 2009 entitled “A new beginning.” The programme was initially designed to use capitalism to spread America’s agenda in the Muslim world (of course Obama puts it more eloquently than I have).

But now black Africa has finally been remembered. It appears that the US government has been impressed by iHub, Nailab and Kenya’s leadership in innovation and start-ups, and that’s why GES came to Kenya.

Kudos to the young innovators. Nailab, the iHub and the Bloggers Association of Kenya have changed my life and my department at work more than they know. But I wondered for a moment if the visits by President Uhuru Kenyatta and Devolution and Planning CS Anne Waiguru to Nailab were out of a genuine interest in what our youth are doing, or embarrassment that the US had taken interest in the centre. But I digress.

Because of we teachers often bear the brunt of attack in these entrepreneurship and innovation forums, I have always dreaded them. But because I’m not an economist, I normally push my questions to the back of my mind. This time, though, those questions are nagging me a little bit more, and I just have to vent.

Question 1: Isn’t it ironical that most of the people telling our youth not to expect employment, but instead be entrepreneurs, are usually employees on salaries at some hot-shot institution like IMF, World Bank, or even the White House?

Question no 2: Why are the floodgates of entrepreneurship directed to countries outside the so-called first world?

I had to consult the GES website to see if maybe Germans, French or British – or even the Greeks, since they appear to badly need it – are hosting entrepreneurial summits. Of course they’re not. The US and the EU talks about Greece are not about telling the Greek youth to be entrepreneurs but about bail outs – which the public has to pay for.

It’s interesting that the Kenyan media is not mentioning that GES is an American foreign policy agenda of the Obama administration. And once US government is involved, we have to ask what GES implies for us and whether it serves Kenyan interests. With all the excitement about the US president coming to his fatherland, I probably will get vilified for this, but I smell a rat in this bias of GES towards the so-called Third World.

And that rat is the fact that the US is pushing for the privatisation of public services through telling us to go for not for social justice, but for (social) entrepreneurship. Which is not fair when we Africans still pay taxes for public services. And truth be told, social entrepreneurship, even by billionaires like Oprah and Bill Gates, cannot replace the resources of a nation and its leadership.

Question no.3 (and most disturbing for me as a teacher): Why is there no mention of the professionals and technicians?

I find it interesting that in all the stories about the poor or girls finally going to school, or about mothers getting maternal and child health care, or about bursaries and maternal health mobile clinics, or about decent housing and clean water, there is no word about the professionals and technicians who do the work of teaching, healing, constructing and plumbing. Yet kids are not taught by bursaries, neither are the sick cured by money, nor buildings built by cement or water taps installed by themselves. So why are we not discussing training, pay and treatment of professionals and technicians? How are the millennium development goals of healthcare supposed to be met when countries like Kenya are bleeding out doctors and nurses to the first world because our politicians are too insecure to have health professionals in their counties?

But most of all, the question that isn’t answered is this: are doctors, nurses, teachers and other professionals and technicians supposed to be entrepreneurs? If everyone is supposed to be an entrepreneur, what happens when entrepreneurs get sick? Or when they have children that need to be educated? Or when those business incubators need to be housed in buildings? Or when entrepreneurs need their cars repaired, or planes flown?

Basically, all this talk of entrepreneurship leaves me with the nagging suspicion of a neo-liberal agenda to lessen the accountability of governments to African citizens. Advocates of entrepreneurship ignore the fact that African unemployment is rooted in runaway corruption, huge wastage of resources on commissions and sitting allowances, highly un-intelligent political cultures, a huge gap between the rich and the poor, and lack of independent imagination in leaders who are often beholden to Western interests. Instead, the advocates in the form of Western governments and philanthropists tell us citizens that we are responsible for our own unemployment.

Entrepreneurship is fine as a policy, but it must be only one out of other policies to build a nation. And those policies must be driven by us, the Kenyan people. The Greeks have asserted their sovereignty even in the difficult economic circumstances. So should we.

The author is a senior lecturer at Daystar University. This article is from her blog.