The francophone mindset; hindrance to development in Africa?

Hotel Ivory makes a compelling case for being positive about Ivory Coast’s economic future, post-crisis. But there’s also a good deal of negative discussion of French-speaking Africa around at the moment (see this World Economic Form video); some blame poor economic growth on the over-valued CFA currency, fixed to the Euro (previously fixed to the French franc); others blame the fact that French-based banks have been little more than deposit-holders rather than investors. But another argument I often hear when chatting with Ivorian friends is that francophone education and perhaps even the francophone mindset puts Ivorians, Senegalese and others at a disadvantage. Could this hinder Ivory Coast’s chances of success?

‘Jeune Afrique’ recently reported on a survey of Cameroonian students (Cameroon combines regions run by French and British colonial regimes) on the perceived differences between the two cultures. The perceptions survey found that francophone students were considered haughty and corrupt, while anglophones were thought to lack style although they were considered more honest. The argument runs that a francophone education promotes rote-learning students that are poor at initiative-taking and working independently, with an over-developed submissive respect for hierarchy. As a bi-lingual African friend put it last night; the francophone will focus on the process, while the anglophone will concentrate on getting the results.

Case studies

A friend of mine recently changed jobs from Orange Telecom to MTN here (respectively no. 1 and no. 2 in the mobile phone network market). I asked about the differences and he said that at MTN (South African) staff are encouraged to think of ideas and go-ahead try and put them into practice whereas at Orange change was a very slow process involving numerous hierarchical hurdles.

I also met a student recently who was writing her thesis. She said that every thesis here has to follow the plan given in a book written by an Ivorian academic about how to organise these things. There were about 30-odd separate headings that you had to follow in organising the work.

Finally, a British businessman who works at ports in Ghana and Ivory Coast says seeing a government minister and other high authorities in Ghana is a simple affair, whereas in Ivory Coast it’s like getting access to a king.

Is this more than anecdote-based cultural stereotypes? A few points to consider;

– in the African creative and telecoms industry, there is certainly a great deal more dynamism and excitement about developments in Kenya, Nigeria or South Africa than French-speaking Africa.

– anecdotally I repeatedly come across the following situation; for a variety of problems from the under-developed nature of Ivorian cinema to unemployment, the perceived solution is to form an association whose principal task will be to approach the authorities to appeal to them to do something to help.

– the new Ivorian minister for youth recently organised a jobs fair for young people and found that the key ambition for 70% of attendees wanted to be Ivorian civil servants.

– surely we can’t ignore the ten year political crisis in Ivory Coast. If francophone’s star performer had been in the game, perceptions would look a bit different with regards to francophone Africa (as they certainly would have if we’d been having this discussion 30 years ago). And having central Africa, a candidate for the planet’s worst governed region, firmly in the francophone camp doesn’t do French-speaking Africans many favours.

– whatever the negative aspects of a francophone education (and there are some positive points; polished presentation, high-technical standards), the new Ivorian president, Alassane Ouattara, carried out all his higher education in the USA, gaining his doctorate in economics at the University of Pennsylvania. The key ministries of Infrastructure (Patrick Achi, Stanford), Plan & Development (Albert Toikeusse Mabri, Washington University) and Mines & Energy (Adama Toungara) are filled by US-educated ministers.

So, if Ivory Coast does turn into a success it may prove francophone Africa can do it. Or perhaps just that anglophone-educated leaders can make the difference!

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9 Responses to The francophone mindset; hindrance to development in Africa?

  1. Nnenna says:

    Great article indeed. As a an Africanophone (a mixture of Anglo, Franco and other-phone) I come across this everyday. I do believe that Francophones need a bit of “it’s my responsibility” kind of thinking and Anglophones need “what is the correct process” kind of thinking.

    Since I have received Franco, Anglo and Other-phone education, I have come to merge these..

    From personal experience I will say that cross-phone education, travel and reaching across the other “phones” is needed for all of us. That is the kind of perspective I share on

    Over all, great blog!

  2. Martin says:

    >Finally, a British businessman who works at ports in Ghana and Ivory Coast says >seeing a government minister and other high authorities in Ghana is a simple affair, >whereas in Ivory Coast it’s like getting access to a king.

    Was that before or after Gbagbo’s fall? Are there any signs it’s changing with the new government? I recall seeing a video of Soro and Hambak driving around Abidjan and in person talking to FRCI having set up illegal roadbloacks. Feels like something ministers in the Gbagbo government wouldnt have done (assuming it was FDS roadblocks). Or was that just an exception?

  3. bigbrovar says:

    I work in the African University of Science and Technology. We have a cosmopolitan mix of students from all over Africa (Gambia, Benin, Ghana, Cameroon, Chad, Senegal, Ethiopia etc) I have had cause to meet and converse with many students from Both Anglophone and francophone countries. What I have noticed was confirmed when I discussed similar issue with one of our professors, he is a French citizen but a native of Niger, he has worked in many francophone countries in west and central Africa. My discussion with him confirmed many of my observations, mainly the lack of self believe in many francophone nations in Africa. He observed that many of them look to France for inspiration than to themselves. He shared with me how it was difficult for him to get things done in many of the countries he works with (to being better educational standards through donating of computer hardware and even teaching the teachers programs) how people there rarely take him seriously because he is a black man. He said sometimes he has to bring with him some of his white students and those are given more respect and attention than him. He observed the servitude mindset of many francophone nation, how they are still mentally enslaved to their colonial masters in many areas of life (economy, governance, education, and even cultural) he told me how the situation in Anglophone countries is the stack opposite. “They proud and would look the white man in the eye” I think before Francophone would need to break off with France if they are every to achieve meaningful economic growth and development. It is no secret that many francophone countries look towards French integration before looking to economic partnership with their Anglophone brothers. The effect of this is there for all to see, francophone nations are more prone to instability in government. The usually have the longest serving rulers, and they experience the least growth economically. And even their best brains have left the country to further develop the French society. Before we can experience a meaningful change of fortune in Anglophone Africa, the countries and their people would need to emancipate themselves from this mental slavery

  4. Hudin says:

    Dipped in to this topic awhile back:

    Basically, those articles and the commentors on them were in agreement that it’s France’s holding the CFA and thus stifling government re-investment in CFA countries mixed with French-style centralized governments. Also added in to that is that the Francophone sphere, despite being as large as it is, is quite limited in reach. Anglophone is greater overall.

    Oh and as for 70% of young people wanting civil service jobs, you find the same thing in Spain and probably elsewhere that economies are stagnant.

  5. JudiP says:

    I reached this post through my friend Nnenna’s tweet, and was taken back 34 years to my six-month stay in Senegal. There were many eye-opening and life-altering experiences I had during that time, and this issue was one of them. As an anglophone Canadian who has been constantly studying the French/English cultural differences (and similarities) internal to our nation (colonized by both, and now seeing the emergence of our First Nations as partners in the next stage of our development), these issues are not just academic to me.

    I noticed these same things in 1977 that you describe now, including the issue of lightness of skin colour as a determiner of one’s potential in employment, marriage, etc. I witnessed Senegalese mothers encouraging their daughters to visit the home of the young German man who headed a reforestation project out of St. Louis – without chaperone. The message was clear. He told me it happened all the time, and he had to be polite but firm with them, give them tea and send them home.

    I also received, through a male colleague, an offer of marriage from a man in the bush I never even spoke to. Or rather a question was posed as to how many cattle my father would want for me. In 1977! I was told this was an attempt to seize the chance for this man to beget light-skinned children and raise the whole family’s potential. And what was that desired future? That our resulting children would be light-skinned enough and fluent in French and French culture to get civil service jobs. That was it. The height of ambition on which such plans were made. Frankly this skin-as-ranking concept persists even in America, where hair straighteners and skin lighteners are purchased and used even by middle-class and otherwise intelligent people of colour.

    It’s frightening to hear this has so little changed in Africa today. But I also wonder what influence the connection between the structure of French colonial bureaucracy and the concomitant structure of Catholicism has reinforced this mindset. That is also a difference between French West Africa and the former British colonies, the colonists’ religions – Catholic and Protestant – are deeply influential in setting values and beliefs beyond the walls of a church. Catholicism (as it was during ‘conquest’ at least) also adheres to a hierarchical, bureaucratic approach to success and the future, with intercession and penance and payment being the means to make gains. This culture may in fact have been more resonant with existing tribal structures, but I haven’t done that research. It may have seemed less different in its layout to the indigenous people than did the cultural form of individualism brought by the British to their colonies. It’s another layer of things to consider, when we wonder why there’s such a persistence of these beliefs among certain peoples and not others.

    It may be that these subtleties are completely detached from their origins now, but have become part of the social constraints within an unspoken worldview. As the French worldview has framed the development of its colonies, so was this French worldview shaped by its Catholicism.

    These deeply influential and different value sets will not change with any superficial interventions, any more than the imposition of law changes a people’s cultural motivation to continue rituals like female genital mutilation. It just drives things underground. We must first understand the source of the behaviour and relate to the core belief with empathy if any of us wish to influence change. And it has to come from within the culture and grow from there. Educated folks can’t be lecturing on better ways to be/do and expect to see productive and lasting change.

    I know from livelihood systems studies in Africa and elsewhere that among the many multitudes of indicators measured, the most consistent determinate for success is ‘household aspiration’. Clearly those mothers in St. Louis and my suitor ‘en brousse’ had enormous aspirations for their families. What’s unfortunate is that this aspiration – the goal set in people’s minds – is misdirected. Helping people ‘get’ this, and supporting a shift to more productive outcomes will get the energies of a people into a place of real achievement. The danger is that outsiders don’t see this behaviour as an indicator of such aspirational motivation.

    Having education outside the French system is a good start, but to help people bridge their long-held beliefs – the kind of beliefs that people are sacrificing to achieve -will take real effort and engagement. I’m concerned that people will dismiss these populations as backwards, lazy, perhaps a bit of a joke, when in fact they have as much potential as those who ‘look the white man in the eye’. I’m hoping that the process of development in Francophone Africa will grow through a stage of empowerment and enlightenment without having to fall into the bloody battles that the more ‘protestant’ countries have suffered to achieve autonomy. If that is what people want, of course.

  6. Nnenna says:

    Wow hoh!! John you asked for it!!

    Okay, I see change is on the way. I have hope. Because I see that unlike in the 1970s, there is a big bunch of Francophone people now getting Anglophone education. Like the blog said, Allasane Dramane Ouattara,, the Ivorian president is one of them. My friend, Christian Roland (@chroland) and his wife and a bunch of others are Canadian trained.

    I also notice people now going down to Asia for training. This non-French training is challenging the status quo.

    So watch the space, in 3/4 years’ time..

  7. sam says:

    Sometime i was of th ideology that African problems are Africans themselves, but also i think that France has, is and will continue to be the problem in many French speaking countries. As a cameroonian, i have really wondered who cursed us that France colonised some (and the larger) part of Cameroon.

    French speaking Cameroonians are really keeping that country bound. This is mirrored in many French speaking countries in the sub-region – Poor governance, ‘autocrazy’ or pseudo-democracy, stagnant economies, poor and very poor education systems, poor infrastructure, wrong economic policies, …. the list is too long.

    As proposed by Replay on the subject of the dependency theory we just need a ‘delinkl’. But it can never be as simple as that. so we are caught ‘tween the devil and the red sea.

  8. Ongoiba says:

    I am from Francophone West Africa, I am bilingual French-English; I agreed that France is the worst colonialist;I use to look at anglophone Africans as ”weird” but since I learned English, my eyes have more open about the world, I can communicate with all nationalities, and have access to more important informations on the internet; I wish my country was Anglophone 🙁

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