‘What would you do if you were Africa?’ This question said it all to me.
I came to HBS excited to learn more about the role of business in a global context. After having worked and lived in a few different countries on the African continent, I expected to meet many classmates from the continent and to better contextualize my experience by hearing theirs. Instead I found a void – a void in voices around my section, a void in knowledge that professors and students brought to conversations, and a void in cases that shed light on the variety of business opportunities on the continent. I found myself feeling isolated and concerned: both by the generalizations classmates would make, unwillingness of professors to push back against such gross generalizations, and hesitation myself to speak up repeatedly as my experience is only one perspective.
A professor recently asked me, ‘you’ve lived in a lot of places in Africa, are things really heterogeneous across countries?’ – I interpreted the implication to be, ‘or is everywhere in Africa just the same?
It would not surprise me if everyone who goes through the RC core would also think everywhere in Africa is just the same. The Cynthia Carrol case is about worker deaths at a mine in South Africa. Ashanti Goldfields discusses a mining company that almost goes bankrupt over options hedging. In LCA, the Jack Stanley case discusses bribery in the context of natural gas (not mining, but close). And then the year concluded with a BGIE case about…you guessed it… worker deaths in mining in Zambia. To the credit of the school, the cases do take place in four different African countries. But it would be easy to leave the RC core associating business operations on the continent solely with mining, death, bribery, and bankruptcy — not unlike the misconceived notions pushed through the western media and Hollywood films.
Furthermore, we are asked to debate “if you were Africa, what would you do” – but when we learn about China or about Japan in BGIE we do not ask “what should Asia do?” Instead professors use the name of the President and the country in their questions. We are asked to debate if ‘South Africa is the hub of Africa’ and then whether ‘Morocco or South Africa should be the hub of Africa.’ Anyone who has lived on the continent, or on any continent, can tell you that comparing the regional roles of countries that are 8000 km apart doesn’t make a lot of sense; for context South Africa is also 8000 km away from India, Iraq, and Argentina. It clearly oversimplifies the dynamics of an entire continent to frame the discussion this way; at an elite institution like Harvard, we can do better.
Having an ‘Africa Rising’ SIP and short course on ‘Doing Business in Africa’ EC elective do not go without noting. The school clearly recognizes a need. While such opportunities may definitely tick the box and create a dedicated space for more nuanced discussions, it does not absolve the school from working to incorporate case examples that expand students understanding of the world; rather than to perpetuate or build upon the unconscious bias to treat Africa as a country.
I challenge the RC course leads to leverage the many cases that have been written on the continent and to breathe fresh air into the RC core. And I challenge each and every professor to review their potential knowledge gaps and better equip themselves to lead discussions in the classroom.
Educating leaders who you hope to make a difference in the world, does not happen by perpetuating the stereotypes of the African continent. Africa is expected to hold ¼ of the world’s population by 2050, the school should realize there is a huge opportunity to make an impact in the world – but that starts with how we treat the African continent in the classroom.