Wednesday, August 01, 2007

TED talks on Africa

TED global recently posted some extremely interesting talks from the June, 2007 conference in Arusha, Tanzania. Among the featured speakers was William Kamkwamba, the young man from Malawi who built a homemade wind turbine for his family (see previous post).

I highly recommend the videos; two in particular are extraordinarily powerful and captivating. Moreover, they are primarily focused on identifying and strengthing positive trends, which is a refreshing change from the litany of negativity often found when Africa is discuessed.

George Ayittey, a Ghanan economist, takes no prisoners in his powerful indictment of the corruption of Africa's elites while lauding the progress made by a new generation of self-sufficient, resourceful African leaders, whom he has branded the "cheetahs" (of whom Mr. Kamkwamba certainly is one). He also relates an insightful viewpoint on how development in Africa is best framed in the context of traditional African economic activity, which while more collectivist in nature is nonetheless very much a market based and capitalist model.

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a former Nigerian Minister of Finance, is featured wrapping up the conference with a talk that links macroeconomics, to her own intensely personal experiences of war-torn Nigeria as a young girl in 1969, to the concept that foreign aid to Africa is nothing but payback for the incredible amount of aid, material and human, that Africa contributed to the development of the "first world". It is hard to capture her wide-ranging speech in a paragraph, but it is a tour de force.

William Kamkwamba's portion is brief but it is interesting to see him in person, introducing pictures of his village and family and describing the process of designing, building, and optimizing the windmill. The fellow who interviews him, unfortunately, did so rather badly. Of course, 19 year Kamkwamba is nervous onstage, before a large audience under lights, and speaking in English - and this is one of his first times outside of his rural village. However, what makes the interview difficult is more of a cultural problem. Mr. Kamkwamba answers all of the questions quite literally and exactly; he is very precise and to the point. Unfortunately, the interviewer seemed unprepared for this - which should have been, culturally, to be expected. Instead, he asked somewhat abstract or open-ended questions, and seemed to be depending on Kamkwamba to expound and expand; in short, to meet our cultural norms and make the most of his time in the spotlight. This, unfortunately, reflected somewhat poorly on the young man as the interviewer waited awkardly for him to go on into more details while Kamkwamba waited, smiling, for the next question.

My (short) experience in East Africa, especially in that kind of context -- which is almost analogous to a classsroom situation with the teacher asking a question -- is that the questioner is expected to ask precise, rapid fire questions; and the answerer is expected to respond concisely and to the point. The lack of that dynamic was, I think, confusing to all concerned.

All in all, it is a great group of videos from the Arusha conference (and there are other videos on the page from previous TED conferences focused on Africa), and they come highly recommended.