It's not exactly earth-shattering news that corruption continues to plague the developing world. According to Transparency International’s most recent Corruption Perceptions Index, corruption is most widespread in African and Middle Eastern countries and is especially prevalent in countries recently or currently embroiled in violent conflict.
Frustrated with the pervasive corruption in African politics, Dr. Mohamed Ibrahim came up with his own way to honor the excellent leaders and shame the corrupt ones. The New Yorker recently profiled Mo Ibrahim and his crusade to end what he sees as an institutionalized legacy of deplorable, corrupt, and despotic rule in Africa through the establishment of a prestigious award for good leadership and an index grading the quality of governance.
The controversial Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership is a $5-million grant for African leaders who have transformed their countries, respected the democratic system, and “did not steal from their people,” explains the New Yorker article. In order to be eligible you must have left power peacefully and democratically at the end of your term (leaders still in office are therefore ineligible). The selection committee for the prize has decidedly high standards; the annual Ibrahim Prize has only been given out three times since its start in 2007, one of which was honorarily presented to Nelson Mandela.
From Ibrahim’s point of view, Africa’s richness in natural resources matches its shortage of good leadership.
[The greatest challenge faced by African countries] is a catastrophic failure of leadership and governance. There is no other explanation. We have had to a very large extent very lousy leadership in Africa: too many dictators, too many megalomaniacs, too many thieves, who bled this continent for their personal and family benefit.
And the solution to Africa’s problems is simply honest, active, democratic leadership, Ibrahim tells The New Yorker.
Governance is about managing this place. It’s a mess. There is a need to enshrine the rule of law. That is the first step toward building an advanced society. Transparency. Lack of corruption. Human rights of individuals. Building infrastructure. Taking care of education. Health. All these things are pillars of a civil society [and of good governance].
However, critics argue the prize is outright bribery, that “it creates perverse incentives,” and that it discredits the power of individuals by focusing so wholeheartedly on leadership.
On the other hand, proponents contend that the prize encourages African leaders to succeed and go above and beyond. Mohamed ElBaradei, former member of the selection committee, says that the Ibrahim Index and Prize function “to name and shame—but also to recognize achievement.” In other words, intracontinental competition for both the award and index rating increases motivations for not just ordinary leadership, but great leadership.
African politicians face an entirely different milieu than that faced by Western leaders when their political incumbency comes to an end. As the New Yorker article notes, Western leaders have opportunities for financial benefit after they leave office; such as book deals, lecture tours, etc. African leaders often do not have these same opportunities. Thus, as The New Yorker writes, “the aim of the award is to spur African leaders to excel—or at least to insure that they don’t stay in office because they lack a retirement plan.”
More important than the controversy surrounding the prize, is that it's an African solution to an African problem. It is funded entirely by Ibrahim and more than half the selection committee are Africans themselves.
Within the circles of African academics and outside experts on Africa, this prize is a big deal. The New Yorker article quotes Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Managing Director of the World Bank, saying: “Among African policymakers, no one is not aware of the Ibrahim Index and Prize.” It goes on to declare that Ibrahim “is often hailed as a hero in Africa." It is the popularity and domestic focus of Ibrahim's approach that affirms that the most positive and sustainable outcomes for the continent will sprout from brave and avant-garde African answers.