Institutions vs. Leaders

Weak institutions or ineffective leaders?

It is one of those conundrums faced by those debating why so many African states are considered Failed States. Not that the Failed State Index is the be-all end-all of what it means to be successful, but it does have some good ways of seeing how people in a country are living. If you don’t feel safe, can’t feed your family, have no job opportunities, can’t trust the government and have no means to health care, then something probably needs to change. And fast!

You may be aware of the fact that the Congo has been on this list since its creation and was ranked dead last for most of those years. We should probably take some time to think about what the underlying causes might be. That way, development practitioners (like us!) can interject where appropriate and then BACK OFF.

On one side there are people who say bad institutions are the culprit. What does that mean exactly? Well, it means there are unchangeable norms and ways of doing things that were set up a long time ago and they are the reason people don’t have access to health care, secure land tenure or job opportunities and can’t pull themselves out of poverty. One commonly cited African institution that adds to underdevelopment and inequity is what we call patrimonialism – this is when government officials prop up their friends/relatives/relatives’ friends in either government appointments or through monetary kick backs. Many of these institutions were put in place during colonial rule and have persisted decades after independence. Regardless, the sentiment is that people are stuck in a cycle and despite how hard you fight there are external factors that prohibit betterment.  

The other side argues that the Congo, and many African countries, is less economically developed because of greedy or ineffective leaders. If one is to use two African countries as case studies, let’s just say the Congo and South Africa for simplicity’s sake, then this point can easily be solidified. It’s a case of Mandela vs. Mobutu.  Mandela’s leadership rallied the world around an anti-apartheid movement while Mobutu committed humans rights atrocities and funneled who knows how much public money into Swiss bank accounts.  

There is not a right answer, but at CLI we have focused on one aspect first: leadership. That’s not to say institutions do not need improvement, because there is plenty of work to be done. But as an intervention point from the outside, instilling effective leadership qualities in young people can have a tremendous impact. And that’s also not to say that we expect every youth who goes through CLI’s program to be the next Mandela or MLK or Ghandi. The goal is to give young people the tools they need to change themselves, their families, then maybe their communities and on up – an extremely grassroots, bottom up approach that is effective at scale. Because giving people the proper tools to improve themselves may be the first step in shifting institutions. Democratization, citizen engagement, community involvement, all the things that build strong institutions start with people, with leaders, with local leaders.

Perhaps it’s a chicken and egg sort of situation. Which came first: good institutions or good leaders? We at CLI believe that effective leadership in action creates change. This may take the form of a young leader recognizing the importance of voting and walking her elders to the polls on election day. Maybe it’s a young person getting a group of friends together to play a game, because building community is about building trust, and building trust comes from spending time with each other in challenging situations. Or maybe it’s as simple as having the courage to raise one’s hand and speak up or even challenging the teacher during class. Because making your voice heard, even in small ways, is incredibly empowering.  

Ultimately, the particular action is not for us to decide. We know bad leaders in good institutions fail, so let’s start by developing good leaders. We don’t believe we have the best answers for how to properly change Congolese institutions because we’re not Congolese. We can leave that up to the people who know the Congo best.  

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