The following is an excerpt from ANNE JOLIS | September 7, 2012 | WSJ.com |
Mohammed Ibrahim is a strange sort of philanthropist, in that he doesn’t do handouts. “It’s my conviction that Africa doesn’t need help, doesn’t need aid,” the 66-year-old telecom billionaire says, as the sounds of west London traffic on Portman Square drift into his office through the open doors of a third-floor balcony.
“It’s a very rich continent. There is no justification for us to be poor,” says Mr. Ibrahim, who was born near Lake Nubia in northern Sudan. The mineral-packed country is one of Africa’s most chronic humanitarian catastrophes. Sudan has also been one of the largest recipients of international aid for 50 years. If charity could unlock Sudan’s potential, the United Nations, World Bank and American taxpayers would have managed it a few billion-dollar cycles ago.
The problem in Sudan and the rest of Africa, Mr. Ibrahim says, isn’t lack of money. It’s “governance—the way Africans govern themselves. Without good governance, there’s no way forward.”
So Mr. Ibraham has a different idea: He gives directly to individuals—specifically to political leaders—who have to earn the money. The Mo Ibrahim Foundation, begun in 2006, tracks the quality of governance across Africa and awards cash prizes to leaders who leave office with relatively uncorrupt records.
The Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership offers a tidy $5 million over 10 years and then $200,000 annually for life. You might call it offering payoffs to leaders who don’t take payoffs.
If the idea seems counter-intuitive, it’s no more so than the gamble that made Mr. Ibrahim a billionaire: cellphones in Africa. In the 1990s, “no one else wanted to do what I was doing—it’s not that I was smart, it’s that the others were lazy,” Mr. Ibrahim says.
After studying engineering in Egypt and coming to Britain in 1974, Mr. Ibrahim earned U.K. citizenship, got an engineering doctorate from the University of Birmingham and in 1983 went to work for British Telecom, which was developing a mobile network, albeit not fast enough for Mr. Ibrahim. In 1989, he resigned and set up Mobile Systems International from his dining room. Over the next decade, his consultancy, MSI, designed half the networks in Europe.
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