Volition and Entrepreneurship: Necessary?

April 7, 2009

The presentation by George Ayittey assigned for our next session on Digital Technology in the Developing World was a robust clarion call to the emerging generation of democratically-minded Africans – whom he termed the “Cheetah Generation” – to wrest Africa from the “Hippo Generation” of corrupt ruling elites. Yet, in envisioning the way forward for Africa, he harks back to the region’s rich history of democratic tribal organization and engagement in market activity prior to colonization. His conception of Africa’s path forward being rooted in the ancient values and practices of the region implicitly provides a compelling explanation for the success of digital technology in Africa thus far.

Applying Ayetti’s analysis, the burgeoning of digital technology in Africa is first due to its peoples’ long-standing recognition and employment of volition to keep their leadership in check and pursue their welfare. According to Ayetti, in pre-colonial times, an overwhelming majority of Africa’s tribes were typically characterized by an essentially democratic framework, wherein the decision-making authority of chiefs were mediated by advisory counsels of elders. Where leaders acted against the interests of their tribe members, people “voted with their feet”, abandoning these leaders to settle elsewhere. Ayetti seems to suggest that these practices indicate that the African peoples’ deeply understood and valued volition, and hence were discrete in their use of it to confer or retract legitimacy from governing parties. Extrapolated to the adoption of digital technologies, this understanding and discrete use of volition seems to elucidate the eager uptake of digital technologies by African populations, as means via which they pursue their welfare and freedom even in the midst of un-supportive political environments.

Ayetti also raises Africa’s tradition of entrepreneurship as a second necessary socio-cultural basis for Africa’s future progress. He puts forward that Africans were already actively engaged in marketplace interactions prior to colonization, decrying the myth of capitalization and market activity as a colonial imposition. With this understanding, the people and businesses of Africa can be seen to possess not only the ability for entrepreneurship, but extensive experience in it, which provided them with the capacity for the technological innovation they have demonstrated in the adoption of digital technology.

In so accounting for the success of digital technology in Africa, more questions are raised about the necessary conditions for the success of digital technology broadly and elsewhere: Are the principles of volition and entrepreneurship fundamental to the successful uptake of digital technologies? Must the local socio-cultural context possess a similar aptitude for exercising free will and innovation to do so? Or is the mother of invention simply necessity?

-Hui Lim

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