We're Losing the Race: Why We Must Even the Playing Field to Address Inequality
This post by Gbenga Sesan is based on his original TED Salon talk, an event hosted by TED in partnership with UNDP.
I once watched a video of a relay race at a primary school in Jamaica. There were two teams: Yellow and Blue. The yellow team had the lead until one little boy got the baton and ran in the wrong direction. My favorite part was when an adult ran after him, trying to save the situation and get the kid to run in the right direction.
In many ways, this is what life is like for many young people in Africa. They are many paces behind their peers on the other side of the inequality divide, and they're running in the wrong direction. Because—as much as we might wish it were otherwise and aspire to build sustainable economic and social systems—global development is a race. And it's a race that the continent, including my home country Nigeria, is losing.
Inequality as a global epidemic
Inequality must be seen as the global epidemic that it is. Inequality is at the center of many of the world's problems, and it affects everyone—not just the bottom 40 percent, the boy who cannot afford to dream because of the disappointment that could come with it or the girl that skips school to sell snacks in traffic just to fund her school fees.
Young men and women who don't get set on a path of equal opportunity become frustrated. And we may not like the choices they make in their attempts to get what they think they rightly deserve or to punish those they assume deprive them of better opportunities.
But it doesn't have to be this way. We, humanity, need to make different choices. We have the ability to close this opportunity gap, but we have to prioritize it.
I grew up many paces behind. Even though I was a smart kid in Akure (a town 350 kilometers from Lagos), it felt like a place that was disconnected from the rest of the world, where hope and dreams were limited. But I wanted to get ahead. When I saw a computer for the first time in my high school, I was spellbound, and I knew I just had to get my hands on whatever it was. This was in 1991, and there were only two computers for the entire school of more than 500 students.
The teacher in charge said computers were not for people like me, because I wouldn't understand how to use them. He would only allow my friend and his two brothers, sons of a professor of computer science, to use them, because they already knew what they were doing.
In university, I was so desperate to be around computers that I slept in the computer lab to make sure I had access to them at night, even when the campus was closed due to teachers' strikes and student protests. I didn't own a computer until I was gifted one in 2002, but what I lacked in devices, I made up for in drive and determination.
Camping out in computer labs to teach yourself coding isn't a systemic solution. That’s why I started Paradigm Initiative in 2007, to help all Nigerians learn to use technology to help them have a better future.
To explain how this type of intervention can make a difference, I will give you the story of Famous Onokurefe, who came to Paradigm Initiative in 2007 because we offered a free computer training program. He had completed high school but couldn't afford college, and his options in life were limited.
When the United Kingdom Trade and Investment team at the UK Deputy High Commission in Lagos asked us about potential interns, we recommended Famous and a few others for interviews. Famous got the internship, through which he then heard about an Entry Clearance Assistant job at the British High Commission in Abuja. He applied even though no one thought he had a shot without a college degree. But Famous got the job, and then he saved enough to pay his way through university. Famous is now a chartered accountant and an assistant manager in one of the world's ‘Big Four’ professional services firms where he has won awards for innovation for the last four years.
Famous started behind, but it wasn't technology that helped him get ahead. It was the extra training—training rooted in his community, training that understood his context and his challenges, training that helped him change his life for the better.
When I asked Famous recently about where he would have been without our training program, he rolled out a list of could-haves, including ending up on the streets, becoming jobless and homeless and at risk of doing things of which he wouldn't be proud.
Fairness does not mean giving everyone a computer and a special program; fairness is helping make sure everyone has the same access and training that helps them make use of all these things to improve their lives.There are millions of young people who have not been as fortunate as Famous or I—people who still don't have the skills, let alone the will, to face similarly insurmountable inequality.
Why the fanciest sneakers in the world can’t help a runner who is miles behind everyone else
Other barriers to opportunity can be compounded by inequality, but equipping a young person can change an entire family. One example: Ogochukwu Obi’s father kicked her, her sisters and her mom out, because he preferred to have a son. But after she completed our program, got a job and became her family's breadwinner, her father came calling, admitting that he was wrong about the worth of the girl.
This is why I do what I do through Paradigm Initiative. But just like other intervention programs, there's a limit to how many young people we can reach through our three centers. We've now taken the training to where the kids are, but public schools are so ill-equipped that we have to bring devices, access, and, in many cases, our own power supply.
In addition to our work at our training centers and in schools, we're now planning to acquire mobile learning units—busses equipped with access, devices, and power—that can serve multiple schools. Yes, we need better access to technology and policies that facilitate open internet access, freedom of expression and more. But the best computers in the world could fall in a democratic forest and no one would hear them—let alone use them—if those potential users were miles away hauling water from a well or foraging for scrap metal to pay school fees in a school that can’t even teach them computer skills. This is just like the fanciest sneakers in the world that can’t help a runner who is miles behind everyone else.
I'll never forget being invited back to my high school as Nigeria's Information Technology Youth Ambassador. It was 10 years after I had been denied access to computers in that very same school. But now here I was, being introduced as a role model who had supposedly been shaped by the same school. After my presentation, the teacher who said I could never understand how to use computers quickly grabbed the microphone and told everyone that he remembered me as a student and was sure I had it in me all along.
He was right. He didn't know it at the time, but I did have it in me. Famous had it in him, Ogochukwu had it in her, the bottom 40 percent have it in them. Are we going to say that life-changing opportunities are not for people like them, just like that teacher said about me? Or are we going to recognize that centuries of inequality can’t be solved by simply giving people gadgets when what they need are training and resources to fully level the playing field?
Fairness is not about giving every child a computer and an app, fairness is connecting them to access, to training and to additional support so they can take equal advantage of those computers and apps. That's how we pass the baton, help people catch up and start running in the right direction, and change lives.
- Gbenga Sesan is the founder and executive director of Paradigm Initiative.