Capacity Building by Proxy: 

Putting African development on a faster and cheaper track

Michael H. Glantz
2 March 2009

Capacity Building by Proxy: 
Putting African development on a faster and cheaper track

I have an idea that I think is important to talk about. I call it Capacity Building by Proxy. The idea is to build institutional and human capabilities on the African continent using those on the continent who have already gathered, formally or informally, experience and expertise in a wide range of socio-economic, educational and environmental endeavors. Let's break down the phrase, Capacity Building by Proxy, into its parts to uncover what it means. First, however, a bit of political history. 

During the Cold War era from 1945 to 1991, the world had two so-called Superpowers: the United States and the Soviet Union. These powers used to compete with each other in just about every way -- economically, politically and militarily, even in sports events such as the Olympics. Each tried to show that its ideologies and policies were the best ones to pursue so that developing countries around the globe would economically and politically develop along the ideological lines that either of the Superpowers not only proposed but also actively sought to impose upon others. The competition between the Superpowers was constant, relentless and filled with potential danger. Just about every decision that either the US or the Soviet government made sparked suspicion from the other Superpower.

In various developing countries, each of these two Superpowers supported opposing political factions, usually politically, morally, financially, or militarily. In some of these countries, each supported different ethnic groups that had been traditional enemies. In still other countries, they supported and armed opposing rebel groups. They armed them heavily and kept them fighting one another. These  wars and conflicts were called "proxy wars," with each Superpower using other groups to fight their ideological battles. This way the Superpowers would avoid a direct confrontation because neither one wanted to accidentally spark a direct military conflict that could have easily escalated into a nuclear confrontation.

Africa Post Cold War The early decades of the Cold War -- say, from the 1950s to the 1970s -- also encompassed the period of decolonization in Africa and Asia. Freedom from colonial rulers would lead to self government and thus prosperity as a nation that would flow right down to the village level. Visionary leaders arose on the continent to carry out successfully the difficult struggle for national independence. 

Because these two processes, the Cold War and decolonization, occurred at the same time, this simultaneity tended to polarize African countries into pro-Western and pro-Communist camps. However, to the eventual disappointment both Superpowers, many of these leaders followed their own visionary paths and did not follow closely the ideologies and policies of the Superpowers. With independence in hand, African leaders began to pursue their own political futures, though they continued to receive bilateral foreign assistance from one or the other, as well as from other industrialized countries and multilateral organizations.

The term "proxy" has a specific definition: A "substitution"; a person or group authorized to act for another. It is used in science to identify surrogate indicators of a changing climate in prehistoric times when no records were kept by society: ice cores, tree rings, pollen are each used as indicators of prehistoric climate conditions. Today, this is the best known use of the term "proxy," because talk of proxy wars has become non-existent in the post-Cold War era. "Proxy" can also be effectively used to educate and train people in developing regions about what current science says about global warming and its impacts. This can be combined with another concept that is receiving lots of attention these days --- Capacity Building.

In the world of economic development, building human capacity through education and training is a high priority. It empowers and enfranchises local peoples to become equal partners in the development of their own regions. Developing such capacity regionally and locally would help to reduce reliance on "imported" foreign experts who have traditionally and often been drawn from the industrial countries in the Northern Hemisphere, hired by, for instance, the World Bank, one of the regional banks, bilateral agreemens, or by humanitarian aid agencies. They are hired in an attempt to expand or strengthen local to national economies, protect environments, design and build infrastructure, advise on land use and management (for rain-fed, irrigated, and range lands), enhance food security or at least reduce food insecurity, to develop health and public safety services, and so forth.

Now, several decades after independence and a decade and a half after the ideological competition of the Cold War, many Africans have acquired the expertise and experience to build capacity in a major way on their continent. After all, it is their continent. An obvious question then emerges: Why not hire Africans living on the African continent to build human capacity in Africa . . . by proxy? In this way funds for international assistance to build capacity in developing parts of countries would go much further. Africans in one country can be hired to build capacity not only in their country but in neighboring countries as well. With such proxy approach to capacity building, costs could be considerably reduced when compared to, for instance, the constant reliance on imported consultants from America, Canada, Japan, the UK, France or Germany, etc. who demand wages based on industrialized country standards.

There is a lot of experience and expertise (e.g., capacity) on the African continent. There is considerable and still growing expertise for just about every aspect of the environment, and that expertise provides formal as well as informal learning opportunities. Africans have earned high school, university and trade school degrees, and some have been given the opportunity to attend schools in countries on the continent. Still others have attended schools in foreign countries around the globe -- in Europe, North America, China and other countries in Asia, and Russia. A considerable wealth of African knowledge -- indigenous and ordinary -- also resides in people who have worked all their lives in various trades, from farming and herding to small-scale businesses and factories. They have worked with plants, animals and ecosystems, acquiring their knowledge through learning by doing. Clearly, Africans have a lot to offer their own countries as well as to others on the continent, if given the opportunity.

Capacity building by proxy, therefore, calls for relatively rich countries to provide assistance to developing areas by providing moral and financial support for proxy education and training -- that is, for the expertise that is already in the region. This will enable them to help those who need assistance in other developing areas in Africa. This would truly be a "win-win situation": capacity is developed in an area that needs it by people from developing areas who would benefit from the experience as well as from gainful empowering employment in a cost-effective financial way by donor countries and agencies.

--Michael H. Glantz

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