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West Africa: Our Complex Challenge

I recently read The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande, a book about collective responsibility on “how to get things right.” A surgeon, Gawande posits it is the combination of skills and expertise while following due diligence on each of the cases presented in the surgery room that makes a difference in the patient’s life. 

One of my key takeaways relates to the classification of problems into three groups: simple, complicated and complex. Thinking of problems in this way can help with the many issues to address across West Africa. In particular, we can draw lessons from the operating room when thinking about bridging the gap between academia and practice. West Africa has many development options ranging from creating opportunities for youth employment to agricultural transformation. In order to achieve these opportunities, we need to arrive at a point where the daily realities of millions of West Africans connect the dots between academia and practitioners. In many respect, they are closer to decision makers in outlining solutions to simple, complicated and complex problems.

There are many simple problems that do not require the input of either academia or practitioners, but they still have implications in terms of how complicated and complex problems to come would be addressed. An example of a simple problem that individuals need to resolve has to do with parents or guardians obtaining a birth certificate. That action provides critical data for academia and practitioners through civil registration and vital statistics. Reliable data forms the basis of the work of academia and practitioners. As Gawande demonstrates in the process leading to the establishment of the surgery checklist, data play a critical role in getting things right.

Data is the critical resource that links academia and practice and allows us to address complicated and complex issues. For instance, there is a need for detailed and comprehensive data feeding into the narrative of change supporting real-time data collection, analysis and dissemination for decision making. A surgeon cannot act without specific data that provides options to remedy.

To remedy a simple problem, it is an individual’s responsibility to act so we collectively attain the desired outcome. Engaging on simple problems provides a recipe for how we might address complicated ones. Urbanization has become a complicated problem as states don’t have reliable data to inform the design of our urban spaces. A technical, not political, solution is required. African architects, engineers and city planners can use their expertise to create spaces that would define the kinds of societies we would like to transfer to the next generation. There is no straightforward solution; there is a combination of factors that would comprise a sequence to get things right.

To address complex issues, we need to accept that outcomes remain highly uncertain. Data, skills and consensus are the factors that bring academia and practice together to design with the West Africa we have.

Every West African country is unique. Economic growth is an indicator of complex issues that converge to deliver on specific outcomes. Experience in one is not a panacea for success in another. Gawande argues that successfully raising one child with a specific set of tools may provide experience, but it does not guarantee success with the next child. How can we meld skill and expertise, academia and practice, to rethink the way we assume that highly uncertain outcomes will materialize across regions?

Each country needs to identify its vascular system that will ensure a flow of resources to support community building. Every country also needs to identify its respiratory system that would bring a breath of fresh air at critical steps. Finally, the nervous system is the link that defines our individual and collective ability to be resilient. Understanding the different systems with the right expertise allows a surgeon and his or her team to address issues that affect a patient’s life and the surgeon’s networks.

Transforming West Africa’s economy is a complex issue. Agriculture is our vascular system because it provides the fuel to keep all other organs functioning. Youth is our respiratory system because they keep us aware of the necessity of continuous innovation. Our institutions represent our nervous system. Keeping the right balance is the complex issue that all of us need to understand so that we might become active contributors.

Carl Manlan is the Chief Operation Officer for Ecobank Foundation, an economist, a 2014 Mo Ibrahim Foundation Fellow and 2016 ASPEN New Voices Fellow. He writes this editorial for WACSI in a personal capacity. 

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