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Who said nepotism was only an African affliction? It’s alive and well and a global phenomenon.

For those of us who, by virtue of residing outside the continent, are deemed ambassadors for Africa whether we like it or not, one of the most common charges we are called upon to address is the issue of corruption on the continent.

Indeed, according to the continent’s central governance structure, the African Union, corruption costs Africa over $148 billion per annum. This is equivalent to 50% of tax revenue and 25% of African GDP.

So there we have it; it’s bad, and no-one is pretending otherwise.

Many people point out that corruption – like tango - takes two, and that Africans cannot be independently corrupt. Well, anyone who’s tried to negotiate getting official documents in certain African countries when you’ve provided all the officially required paperwork and the official in question is quite clearly waiting for that ‘extra’ something to spur him on, might have a different view on this. We seem pretty capable of managing our own corruption although, to be fair, there is ample evidence of equally committed corruptors, ranging from foreign corporations to individuals who come with their own brand of rottenness, ready to do their kind of business. An assertion borne out by a recent study undertaken by global business risk consultancy, Control Risks, which revealed that 34% of companies from Africa reported losing out on deals to corrupt competitors.

But even if other people are equally guilty of the practice, Africa can ill-afford the perpetuation of corruption when so many of her people live in abject poverty and largely without the safety net of state benefits that are available in more developed economies.

Who You Know

Corruption takes on many forms, one of which is nepotism or, to put it another way, giving more favourable treatment to someone because of familial or other relationships. But having taken a battering on the undeniability of corruption in my home continent, I have to confess that I was somewhat cheered (yes, it sounds bad, but we’re all human) to read a recent survey that reveals that Africans are not alone on this particular one.


According to the survey, nepotism is not solely an African affliction, but is alive and well and a global phenomenon.


The report was published by the Debrett’s Foundation, a UK organisation set up to support high achievers from underprivileged backgrounds to enter the world of work. After surveying more than 5,000 people, Debrett’s have come to the conclusion that in the UK at least, social mobility has barely changed since the 18th century.

The study found that 72% of children from privileged backgrounds admitted to using family connections to secure work placements and that 25% of all young people felt the system for getting work placements and internships in Britain was “unfair”, with one-quarter of respondents agreeing it was easier to secure a placement by having a double-barrelled – read, posh - surname. Indeed, according to Joanne Milner, Chief Executive at Debrett’s, “These findings reveal that securing the right work experience placement is difficult, but considerably more so if young people don’t have the right connections.”

Nepotism or Networking?

It’s not just the Brits who are holding their hands up to nepotism. According to new research by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, nearly three-quarters of people who changed jobs were not looking for a new one, but were found through contacts and by recruiters via word of mouth. The study highlights that most new hires have been recommended by a friend of a friend or simply poached from the competition.

The importance of “informal contacts" and the impact of one’s network on job hunting are huge. The Bank’s analysis, based on Census Bureau data, is not encouraging for those without an established professional network or a foothold in their chosen industry. According to the researchers, 42% of monthly hires are for positions that weren't advertised, and even among those who had previously been unemployed, only a third landed a job by applying cold. 

Moving on from America, there have been reports of Chinese financial institutions offering internships to the offspring of wealthy clients, thus providing those already privileged youngsters with an almost sure fire guarantee of opportunities to gain admission into schools in Europe and the USA. Oh, and let’s not forget the Wall Street banks that have admitted doling out prized internships to the offspring of Middle Eastern clients. And so it goes on…

…Not What you Know

I have to confess to feeling rather conflicted about this issue; after all, who doesn’t want to benefit from the influence of one’s network and, indeed, provide support to one’s nearest and dearest when possible? At the end of the day, the truth is that we do more for people with whom we have a relationship than for those with whom we do not. When we are invested in someone, we are quite naturally keen to support and help them.

Whether you call it networking, the ‘old school tie’, common sense, or plain old nepotism, the truth is that we all practice or benefit from it at one point or another. We turn a blind eye when it gets us in front of the right person, yet feel justifiably outraged when it works against us. And yet the question remains as to where you draw the line. Where does networking blur into nepotism and isn’t it really a victimless crime?

Well, Joanne Milner of Debrett’s, reckons the opposite. Nepotism not only isn’t fair, she says, it also has a negative effect on performance and on accessing the best talent. “While nepotism isn’t any more widespread than it was in the past, it has a greater impact today. When there are so many candidates for the top graduate jobs, it follows that those with the best experience should have a better chance of securing them.”

Whether it’s about jobs for the boys or cutting into line, the reality is that someone else is going to get pushed out of the way. It may be utopian to imagine that it will ever be eradicated but if we are aiming above all for excellence, and unless by happy coincidence the two come together, we have to be ready to say no to nepotism and yes to merit.

Fair’s Fair

So on the issue of corruption, since it appears that human beings are more alike than different no matter which continent we live on, let’s not throw stones only at Africa.

While making no excuses for wrongdoing, let’s be fair and admit that if it’s wrong, it’s universally wrong. And, just to be clear, it doesn’t get Africa off the hook on the corruption question. But it sure does make it clear that we’re by no means on our own.



Author of the novel ‘ From Pasta to Pigfoot’ http://www.amazon.co.uk/Pasta-Pigfoot-Frances-Mensah-Williams/dp/1909762202 and the books ‘I Want to Work in… Africa: How to Move Your Career to the World’s Most Exciting Continent’ (www.IWanttoWorkinAfrica.com) and ‘Everyday Heroes – Learning from the Careers of Successful Black Professionals’ (www.everyday-heroes.co.uk)

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