Why ‘resilient Africa’ is but a fancy name for damage-control approach to public services

Umar Trife Wamboze

What you need to know:

  •  Africa’s biggest crisis today is not her broken systems and poor governance. It is rather not knowing how else to see herself except as a continent stuck in crisis.

Owing to her history with colonialism, make-shift democracy and struggling economies, Africa is much more likely to be described as resilient compared to any other continent. The same goes for Africans, who have been here through the thick and thin of it all.

Majority of those references will come in the form of headlines highlighting natural disasters, op-eds on political conflict, or textbooks canvassing historical injustice. A pat on the back for having made it this far despite a permanent co-existence with hardship.

These depictions while highlighting the continent’s challenges often glorify the idea of resilience, even hinting that we could withstand and survive worse. The subsequent narrative, while seemingly positive, subtly lowers expectations for public service delivery and allows governments to sleep on the job.

Thanks to resilience, citizens are accustomed to “broken systems” and become less likely to demand better infrastructure, healthcare, or education because a flawed social service delivery system has been accepted as normal, and anything else, a miracle.

For the 67.4 percent of Africans that can read and write, resilience means the ability to recover quickly from difficulties and adapt well to adversity or change. It is also a word that the remaining 32 percent may notliterally understand but can associate with the relief aid that came through in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Resilience is used with the assumption that when hit by a crisis, people and their governments will redesign their systems to fulfill their needs despite the sudden adversities. But what do we say of a population that no longer feels the need to adapt to its lack of social services simply because their crisis has stayed around so long they do not know better? Is that still resilience?

The gospel of resilience, while a testament to the continent’s enduring spirit, has had the side effect of making service delivery seem like relief aid remission. Citizens are conditioned to accept a damage-control approach to public services as an inevitable part of the African experience.

And governments resort to big speeches and large manifestos as coping mechanisms. This citizen ”resilience” becomes a convenient excuse for governments to prioritize quick fixes over long-term investment in public services.

Putting it simply, African resilience is a back-handed compliment for going to under-resourced hospitals, living in a food-to-mouth economy, attending an education system that is struggling to keep more than half of what it admits, and still coming out whole.

The Covid-19 pandemic only made this narrative worse with myths that black people, owing to their strong immunity, were less likely to contract or die from the virus. It is thus not surprising that the reward for this resilience has not been better but worse public service systems. 

According to the 2018 Mo Ibrahim Report on public services in Africa, our systems are a display of significant capacity issues. With limited resources and equipment, political dependence is pronounced, and corruption rates are among the highest globally. This coupled with deficient supervision systems explains the poor quality of services.

Additionally, many of these institutions aremalfunctional and auctioning public services to the highest bidder, a situation often described as “public institutions offering private services.”

For so long, the mill around here is run by how many problems we are having and how many more we are willing to endure. How these problems are part of a collective, how they have been researched and published, read and passed on from one generation to another. And how they have become identified with our DNAs and skin colours.

So much so long that we hardly know any other way to see ourselves. Africa’s biggest crisis today is not her broken systems and poor governance. It is rather not knowing how else to see herself except as a continent stuck in crisis. Isn’t it about time this changed? 

Umar Trife Wamboze is a Law Student, at Makerere University.