Kusi-Appiah: Societies work because people work

Andy Kusi-Appiah

Part 2: “Societies work because people work.”
By Professor Kusi-Appiah,

QE scholar, 2019/2020

“So let us get to work.” : President Chakwera, on Malawi’s 56th Independence day, 2020

Last month we found out that Dr. Kofi Abɛbrɛsɛ, the darling ‘boy’ of Fametu, and an expert scholar in his country, is larger than life and the people of Fametu love him to shreds because he provides everything they need on a silver platter, but no one questions the source of all his benevolence. In this write-up, we delve deep into the relationship between Dr. Kofi Abɛbrɛsɛ and the people of his motherland, and the toxicity of that relationship to development. At the end of part 1 of this article (August 2020) Dr. Kofi Abɛbrɛsɛ’s stewardship is being audited.

Let us continue…..

Action and reaction – opposite and equal:

The result of the audit was not good – a whopping US$150 million had been misappropriated! Dr. Kofi Abɛbrɛsɛ could not account for the missing cash (but everybody knew where the money went). Dr. Kofi Abɛbrɛsɛ tried to blame his subordinates for the mess, but he was unsuccessful. He was tried and found guilty of misappropriation of development funds, and jailed for 20 years. The people of Fametu could not come to terms with the whole episode.  In their own minds, it was the work of saboteurs, people who did not like Dr. Kofi Abɛbrɛsɛ. They continued with their lives but with a firm resolve that everybody must strive to be like Dr. Kofi Abɛbrɛsɛ. Four years later, Dr. Kofi Abɛbrɛsɛ died in his jail cell.  However, his “legend” lived on in the under-developed land; Dr. Kofi Abɛbrɛsɛ was a show man who financed his “showmanship” with the people’s purse but nobody dared to voice it out until the people from the big country came.

Clearly, if one does the same things all of the time and expect different results, that would be akin to insanity. Things do not work in certain places because the large majority of the people there either condone unprogressive behavior, or feel that it is not their responsibility to do anything about the challenge. In Dr. Kofi Abɛbrɛsɛ’s case, no one even questioned his exorbitant life style; it was assumed that since he is (or was) highly educated, he was entitled (the proverbial culture of entitlement) to everything he had surrounded himself with.

Societies work, because people work:

The people of the underdeveloped land in which Dr. Kofi Abɛbrɛsɛ was brought up failed him, and Dr. Kofi Abɛbrɛsɛ in turn failed his own people. Democratic societies work not because of their governments (or elites), democratic environments work because the people WORK, and the people believe in accountability.  In such an environment, the government’s power, or for that matter the power of the elite, is limited to the extent to which civil society will allow.

In his book: “From Dictatorship to Democracy.”, Gene Sharp (1993) identify three (3) of the most important factors in determining to what extent a government’s power will be controlled or uncontrolled:

(1) the relative desire of the populace to impose limits on the government’s power;

(2) the relative strength of the subjects’ independent organizations and institutions to collectively withdraw the sources of power, and

(3) the population’s relative ability to withhold their consent and assistance.

The fact is that in certain places, the public is always “friends” with “the Prince” (aka Machiavelli) , i.e., the ruling elite. The ruling elite always dictate what is acceptable behavior in the land. The “elite” (whether they are in government or not) dictate what is good for society; they decide what is the “good life”…and the rest of society applaud the “good life” imposed by the elite. But should the elite, who are for the most part western educated and with an Occidental mentality (aka Edward Said) be the ones dictating what the ‘good life’ is for local people?

An attitude takes root:

If the answer to the last question above no, how then can this attitude be changed when in fact local people have been brainwashed to believe that the elites (or the surrogates of the 1%) know best?

One of my very good friends is the CEO of a middle-sized company in a so-called under-developed land; he has loads of money, money made through his own blood and sweat (no government money there). Lately (about 4 years now) my friend has decided that he would do some farming as part of his contribution to the land in which he does business and thrives.  In this regard therefore, he has gotten himself a large plot of fertile land in the hinterland of that country, and he goes there at least twice a month (sometimes three times) to see his farm (some coffee, cassava, plantain, yams, and some livestock).

When my friend goes to visit, he actually participates in all of the activities therein. This gesture, according to the local folks, is not good behaviour because a CEO and a highly western-educated person who rides in an SUV, and is able to feed a whole village, MUST NOT be seen to be doing ‘menial’ work! This kind of farm work, according to the local folks, is reserved for “the non-elite’, the ‘uneducated’ and the lowest of the low in society. They look at the CEO as though he had committed sacrilege! Of cause my friend thinks this is unfortunate because such thinking, in his mind, does not allow people to be able to express themselves and be creative in building anything. The fat of the matter is that this kind of thinking is pervasive throughout the land. In this land, western-educated people are “forced” to live the lie by “reaping where they have not sown” (like Dr. Kofi Abɛbrɛsɛ did) in order to keep up with appearances – – and the masses applaud! Any attempt to get people to behave otherwise is “crushed”, and this is undemocratic and savage!

Traits of a democratic environment:

When I talk about democracy I am not referring to an imported form of government imposed by default and by virtue of a foreign educational system in place. By democracy I mean a form of existence in which all the people have a voice in how they would like to be governed. The fact of the matter is that nowhere in any democratic environment can anyone dictate how one spends one’s leisure time. It is only in non-democratic environments that people are forced to live such lies. One characteristic of a democratic society is that there exist independent of the state many and diverse non-governmental groups and institutions. These institutions include, for example, families, religious organizations, cultural associations, sports clubs, economic institutions, trade unions, student associations, political parties, villages, neighbourhood associations, gardening clubs, human rights organizations, musical groups, literary societies, among others. These bodies are important in serving their own objectives and also in helping to meet social needs, such as making sure that people are armed with the right way of thinking about freedom and how the collective must be sustained.

Additionally, these bodies have great political significance. They provide group and institutional bases by which people can exert influence over the direction of their society and resist other groups or the government when they are seen to impinge unjustly on their interests, activities, or purposes. Isolated individuals, not members of such groups, usually are unable to make a significant impact on the rest of the society, much less a government, and certainly not a dictatorship.

Consequently, if the autonomy and freedom of such bodies can be taken away by the ruling class and their friends, the population will be relatively helpless. Also, if these institutions can themselves be dictatorially or through regulations, controlled by the ruling class and their friends, they can be used to dominate both the individual members and also those areas of the society.

Local people need to stand up and reject the lies perpetuated in society so that people will wake up and put all hands on deck in their development efforts.

Great effects are produced by tiny causes:

I hear rumblings coming from my holy village.  Some of my people are saying that their voices do not matter and that nobody listens to them.  But I say to them: “chill, because sometimes great effects are produced by tiny causes.” Think of the metaphor used to explain “Chaos theory” about the proverbial butterfly flapping its wings over China causing a huge storm in another part of the world. Intuitively these sorts of explanations don’t appeal to us. For the most part we believe that great effects must have great causes, or that some wondrous force must come down and intervene on our behalf. And because of this way of thinking, we are likely to miss the connection between cause and effect when there is a mismatch in size. Some of the negative attitudes are self-imposed, and it has been imposed over decades of continuous and deliberate exposure to “imposed truth” about life.  The good news is that it is possible to disintegrate such attitudes through a deliberate, concerted and continuous effort, one little progressive action at a time.  

In their now famous experiment, Goethals and Reckman (1973) show that in most cases we change our minds without knowing that we have.  In this classic experiment high school students were asked their opinions on a variety of social issues, including on how children should be bussed to school and whether it would help with racial integration. The actual topic itself doesn’t matter for our purposes, what the experimenters were doing here is getting a measure of participants’ attitudes to a specific issue before the experimental manipulation. A couple of weeks later the students were invited back for a further discussion on the bussing issue. This time, though, they were split into two groups, one that was pro- and one anti- the bussing issue.

The two groups had separate discussions about the bussing issue, but amongst their number had been planted an experimental confederate. The confederate was armed with a series of highly persuasive arguments designed to change the participant’s minds on the issue.

Experimenters wanted to turn the pro- group into an anti- group and the anti- group into a pro-group. The confederates turned out to be extremely persuasive (and/or the students were easy to sway!) and the two groups were successfully turned around. The results are quite astonishing when you think about it. When compared to a control group who were not involved in the further discussion, neither of the experimentally manipulated groups could accurately remember their original position. What they remembered as their ‘original’ opinion seemed to have been significantly warped by the experimental manipulation. First those who were anti-bussing originally recalled their pre-manipulation position as being much more pro-bussing than it actually was. Even more impressively, those who were originally pro-bussing thought they were actually anti-bussing before the experiment. Their recall of their previous position had completely turned around. Strangely, when asked what effect the discussion had had on their views, all the participants thought it hadn’t significantly changed their views. If anything, they said, the discussion had just confirmed what they already thought. What this experiment demonstrates is how easy it is for change to occur without knowing why or even that it has happened.

What the global south currently need is a group of dedicated and selfless individuals who are ready to work hard in the business of changing minds and preparing local people to take action that will benefit themselves. Throughout my travels in Africa, I have talked to many people from diverse circumstances and what I hear is dissatisfaction with the way in which their respective communities are being run. However, when it comes to taking action and making sure that things are done right for the common good, I hear overwhelmingly from local people that: “we have no power.” This is wrong, and this thinking must change because local people also have power which is embedded in their local cultures and in their social structures. Without local people there can be no government or the elite, this is simply because in order to rule a people their cooperation must be guaranteed. This begs the questions: i) ‘do local people know that they have power?’; ii) will local people act if they get to know that they have power? The answer to the second question is an emphatic yes! Michel Foucault’s mantra that: “there is power everywhere…” is a hidden and unspoken fact, but it is now time to expose it and make it work for all. However, local people must first understand that they do have power, and they need to then channel that power non-violently for the common good. Unleashing the embedded power to create the society we desire is a skill!

Another worldview is possible!


Andy Kusi-Appiah is an adjunct professor at Carleton University. His interests are on the impact of social and environmental changes on the health and well-being of vulnerable groups (e.g., 2nd generation Canadians of African descent).

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