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African Engineers: Development Worker's Dilemma

February 27, 2012 | Comments: 0 | Views: 221

From the 1960s, as more African countries emerged into independent life, Western governments and international non-governmental organisations (NGO) have mounted innumerable projects aimed at promoting economic and social development. These projects have employed vast numbers of local people in various capacities from co-directors and technical officers down to semi-skilled workers and labourers. While the project planners and fund providers might have high aspirations of alleviating the poverty and suffering of thousands of people, for many of the local people employed on the ground the work is just another job and a stepping stone to something better. There will inevitably be a few, usually technically and professionally qualified, individuals, however, who find themselves torn between the two objectives of service to the community and pragmatic self-interest. The dilemma may be intensified by an opportunity to attend a training programme overseas.

Often, local employees of development projects are given a chance to train for a short period in the project sponsor's home country. As time passes the mind wrestles more and more with the question of what should be done at the end of the training period. Should one return to one's duties back home or take what seems like a once in a lifetime opportunity to seek one's fortune in a more prosperous country?

At a fundamental level this is a problem that confronts every educated citizen of a developing country. A good deal is understood about the theories of economic development. If governments pursue the right policies it is possible for national economies to grow by a few percentage points every year. If the new wealth is fairly distributed, each citizen could expect his lot to improve gradually in line with the growth in the economy. However, experience has shown that fair distribution is rarely achieved. A few people prosper spectacularly at the expense of the masses. Any advance for the masses is often nullified by population growth. In many cases it has been seen that national economies steadily decline over the years.

But the personal issue goes deeper than that. Even if the efforts of the government and development agencies achieve growth in the economy, is a rate of, say, 5 percent a year attractive to an ambitious young person? Doesn't one need annual growth rates measured in hundreds and thousands of percentage points if one is ever to have all one wants: a big house, a Mercedes Benz, a BMW, and enough spare cash to keep the extended family happy? Individuals can achieve these high growth rates, not by waiting for economic development, but by finding a way of taking a bigger share of wealth that already exists. Experience of grassroots industrial development brings the realisation that this is what motivates most would-be entrepreneurs.

Yes, human life is too short to wait for economic development. This is understood instinctively even by the bushmen and illiterates back home. They are all intent on seeking ways to escape to a better life. It is only intellectuals who worry about rationalising the situation. Painfully, with this rationalisation can come a desire to leave behind something more durable than wealth. Shouldn't an educated man or woman also leave his or her mark on the history of his or her country? Could something be done that would make one's name remembered for generations to come? Could one be like Tetteh-Quarshie, whose name is still honoured after almost a hundred years, as the man who brought cocoa to Ghana?

The quest for lasting fame can be a path of honour. Avarice must be put aside and sacrifices made if one is to serve one's country in the field in which one is best qualified. The monetary rewards will be modest, there may even be a struggle to survive, but one could forego material comforts for the promise of lasting fame. Will success be achieved, however, even if the sacrifices are made? The work is hard and does not always achieve its objectives. Lasting fame cannot be guaranteed. Can one bring oneself to condemn one's family to share the deprivations? They deserve the good things in life as much as anyone.

Is consideration of family merely an excuse to justify the pursuit of wealth? Is that what one really wants? Couldn't wealth, if used philanthropically, also bring fame? After all, it is the wealth of overseas Africans that is building houses in Africa and helping to establish new businesses. Couldn't such a programme be devised to help far more of the poor by building larger numbers of small dwellings and creating industries with high employment potential? Couldn't wealth used in this way possibly lead to an appointment as a government minister or a chief executive of a state corporation? Surely the pursuit of wealth does not automatically close the door to the pursuit of fame.

Would staying overseas lead to the acquisition of a personal fortune? It has for a few, but for many more it has led to many years of disappointment. Some are trapped in a foreign land for the rest of their lives and those who return in retirement are often separated from their children who chose to remain in the society they have known from birth. Those who can face the risk of such a fate may choose to cash-in their return ticket, while those who heed the call of duty will report to the airport on schedule.

John Powell To learn more about the intriguing story of the grassroots industrial revolution in the turbulent Ghana of the second half of the twentieth century, read John Powell's novel The Colonial Gentleman's Son or his non-fictional account The Survival of the Fitter. More details of these books and photographs of the informal sector artisans of Suame Magazine in Kumasi will be found on the following websites. ( )

Source: EzineArticles
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