Educate people or does culture need to change?

Education is a cornerstone of many organizations and is a big part of what we do here in Northern Uganda. Education is the key to opportunity in the US so of course we assume it to be the answer here. When Africans do not make the decisions we would rationally take, we assume it is due to a lack of education. Our assumption is that our perspective is right so the only logical answer could be that the local people simply do not have their eyes open because they have been never taught to do so.

Now education is always a good thing but that is not the question. The question is how you get from point A to point B. How do we move from a situation where Africans choose to frivolously spend rather than investing? Where they will not purchase a new phone or get a new hairstyle rather than purchasing land, completing the construction on their home, or saving for their children’s education. Again we assume that Africans are not behaving rationally because they don’t know any better.

A 31 Bits beneficiary during training

A 31 Bits beneficiary during training

Many organizations are founded on these principles: Africans do not know any better, we do. Yet these same organizations and businesses, mine included, pound their heads when after educating people they continue to behave the same way. Most continue with more training, more education. Virtually no one steps back and says maybe we are going about this the wrong way.

The key assumption is that Africans are not behaving rationally. But what if they are? Do we really think are dumb? That they continue to make decisions that are detrimental to themselves? Or have we misunderstood the choices they have in front of them? My conviction is of the later.

The vast majority of African societies (especially in rural areas) are the quintessential socialistic ideal that is talked about in the West but never actually practiced. What this means is that everything that is yours is not yours, it is the community’s. We view our income as our own where in Africa other people believe they have a right to your money. That logic is obviously foreign to us in the West but the core of it is good. People helping other people.
In the West we would reject people asking or taking our money if it is excessive but Africans do not have that luxury. Saying no to a family member or neighbor results in one being ostracized from the community. In a society where family and communities are so close that is far worse that being poor. Therefore it is entirely rational when people making decent wages are always short of money because they are giving so much away or it is being taken away from them. Again it is also rational when people spend money on frivolous things because they are trying to spend the money themselves before anyone comes and asked for it and they have the obligation to give it.

Think of the implications of how you would spend your income if you knew that if you didn’t spend it today your neighbor would spend it tomorrow. It would probably cause you to blow your money on things you really didn’t need, but more importantly is would undermine your desire to work hard the next day. There absolutely is a sense that socialism experienced in Africa is undermining people’s work ethic and desire to get ahead because their gain really isn’t theirs.

In this situation, there is no education that you could give people that would change this because it isn’t a lack of understanding by the Africans but by the Westerners. It is a cultural shift that is needed which unfortunately takes far more than some education since people are in fact acting rationally.

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