November, 2019. Three years ago, I decided to part ways with The Royal Academy Of Engineering because of their relationship with Prince Andrew, and how they and Pitch@Palace undermined the African innovators they had once intended to support.
With the latest reports of Prince Andrew's racist behaviour, this post might seem political but this wasn't the original intention. It's an example of a wider problem in education: institutional goals and personal agendas often undermine learners. This is intended to share our lessons learned to help other educators.
It's constructive when first-hand witnesses hold individuals responsible for their actions. Checks and balances are needed, especially when powerful people promote prejudice and discrimination to their advantage. Specific, credible testimonials give us new insight, so are a reason to reconsider supporting them.
To be clear, here, I only write about my experience with Prince Andrew's allies at The Royal Academy Of Engineering and it's interaction with Pitch@Palace. I didn't have any meaningful interaction with him directly.
While racism in The Royal Family wasn't a secret, I've seen the people working around them accept racism as an embarrassing inconvenience to be managed and suppressed. Some of them try to make some good come of the situation, but I've learned that this type of ethical trade-off doesn't work. It enables the very behaviour that perpetuates systematic prejudice and other dysfunctions.
I want to emphasise that the Academy staff works hard to do good for others, and in tough situations, people make mistakes and bad judgement calls. We can hold them responsible for their actions and results without character attacks.
This is about responsibility and improvement. The effectiveness of programs like Pitch@Palace and even my own work with The Africa Prize should be questioned. We should also question their backers' agendas and worldviews, and if those actually uphold their seemingly noble causes.
In the end, we're all responsible for who and what we choose to support.
This account and its complimentary section on Designing using the Coherence Question aim to give us a constructive framework for situations like this.
At her new job at The Royal Academy Of Engineering in London, Meredith wanted to impress her senior management. So she took initiative as the manager of a new program called The Africa Prize For Engineering Innovation. The plan: find a dozen promising engineers from across Africa who have some innovation they want to get to market, give them 6 months of business training and offer the best a cash prize.
Though her program was a success, she was underpaid and overworked. Even by the time The Africa Prize was in it's third year, she had barely been present for most of it.
Since the start, the program was running smoothly. She had confidence in us, the training company she hired, so she didn't feel the need to be there much. She'd introduce the start of the training weeks, held in different African countries, and slip to the back of the room to catch up on email while we took over. If she was in town with us, she'd be around the hotel, or out meeting with a local university on behalf of the Academy. These other responsibilities allowed her to relax a bit, hang by the pool or travel to a nicer part of the country. With all the formalities and bureaucracy causing her long hours, she felt she deserved it. And she did. We were supportive.
Our initial contract was really just for the workshops in the training room, but we wanted to volunteer to do more. After all, when would we have the opportunity to support high-growth tech companies that save lives and get people out of poverty? Rather than the standard shopping list of startup business lectures, we wanted to shift into something that truly helped African innovators make a widespread impact. More than teaching, we wanted to listen to their needs and respond with relevant support, and help them build their support network so they felt more enabled.
So when our program manager responded to our suggestions with: "I don't do vision. Just tell me what hotel and buses to book," we were happy to step up.
We steadily took responsibility for the direction, design, planning, network-building, and logistics even if we weren't paid for it. We rolled up our sleeves and got to work. Meredith handled the funders, the gala event for the final pitches, hired a PR company, and asked African universities to recruit applicants. Over the next year, we handled almost everything else in between. We took on everything to do with enabling the dozen engineering entrepreneurs who were selected from across Africa each year. After a year, she called us "co-founders."
Stepping up with this ambition meant figuring out a bunch of problems over the years.
The first year, some of the participants couldn't make it to the in-person training weeks because they couldn't get visas to the host country. (For Africans, it's difficult to get visas to other African countries. Most Europeans don't realise this because it's so easy for them.) While the Academy was happy hosting in South Africa, where its PR agency was based, South Africa's politics were becoming increasing hostile to other Africans. So, we researched alternatives through our network, and ended up convincing them to host in Kenya, then Ghana and Rwanda, which were much more friendly to other African nationals. Plus, we had connections there who could help with visas, even if The Academy didn't.
Renting training rooms in fancy hotels was convenient for the program manager to book, but created a dry, isolated lecture experience. These novice entrepreneurs needed a community so they could learn from others, feel part of something bigger, and build their support network. So we reached out to some of the best innovation hubs on the continent, offering to run free training events for them in exchange for their help connecting our entrepreneurs into their communities.
The second year, the prize's main funder was unhappy with the audience turnout for the final pitch gala event. We introduced Meredith to startup community leaders and hubs, so she could ask them to host the finals for a better turnout next year.
We were working well together, supporting each other and focusing on our strengths.
But the more we took on, the more Meredith seemed frustrated about her lack of support from within the Academy.
After 3 years of continuous experiments and improvements, the 6-month program still revolved around two separate residential training weeks, each followed by 3 months of remote mentoring. The final pitches were hosted in an African city, awarding prizes up to 25,000 pounds. Established African technologists were invited to join some UK judges, and the head judge was the main funder from the UK. The judges had almost no knowledge of the participant's progress, so that single 5-minute pitch was important.
By now, it was obvious that these academic engineers had day jobs and other responsibilities. Many of them fed their entire extended families on their salaries. Their big potential innovations were part-time side projects, and needed to become solid income-earners before their founders could commit more time to them. The program had to work with them using time they had, not force them to into an entrepreneurial schedule and risk profile assumed by Westerners.
We'd evolved the content of the program to accommodate this reality. The first 3 months were focused on self-evaluation, up-skilling, and connecting -- and the last 3 months were focused on putting their learning into real action. That's when they could make measurable improvements and speed up their pace of progress. That's what they could show the judges.
In Kigali, on the last hour of the last day of the last training week of Africa Prize's third year, a new junior from the Royal Academy appeared to make an announcement. A last-minute rule change: there would be an intermediary pitch event called Pitch@Palace in London, held by Prince Andrew, The Duke Of York. It was great opportunity to make UK business and investment connections, but also failure to attend in London would result in disqualification from the whole Africa Prize. In effect, get yourself a visa to the UK in a month, or you're out. A no-show in London means no prize money. And apologies, The Royal Academy could not take responsibility for getting the visas.
This was a surprise to everyone, including us.
Meredith had stayed in London to recover from a broken leg, so we explained to the new Academy staff who were on-site that this would derail the innovators we were here to support. These entrepreneurs had limited time to work on their businesses, but they were finally making headway. The decision to make Pitch@Palace mandatory would put the brakes on that. If we were only being notified now, surely we could discuss other options.
For an African to get a UK visa was time-consuming and expensive. Multiple in-person visits to embassies, waiting for hours, convincing officials, getting rejected then needing to return with other documents. For example, showing large sums in your bank accounts, and providing other convincing evidence that you have a reason to travel back home. Some of them didn't even live in countries with UK embassies so would have to fly to other countries just to apply, and cross their fingers they'd be accepted.
Whatever little time they had for their businesses would have to be put towards jumping though all these administrative hoops instead. Their businesses and innovations would have to wait. We estimated half wouldn't survive eviscerating their schedules like this, losing the momentum they'd worked so hard for.
These weren't just any startups looking to get rich, these were valid projects that would save thousands of lives if they succeeded. Now, instead of supporting them, we were derailing them. This decision meant potentially thousands of lives not saved in the future.
Meredith knew all this from previous years, and we calmly repeated this explanation to the new juniors who were with us in Rwanda.
It would be better to make the UK trip optional, and let these entrepreneurs decide what's best for their own businesses.
Or we could stick to the agreed terms with the innovators, and talk to Pitch@Palace doing it at a later date to avoid such a disruption.
Communicating through her subordinates, Meredith dismissed our concern, saying that the relationship with the Duke Of York was too important to risk by having a small number of presentations. It seemed like he was depending on us.
Over the next week, I tried calling her directly but my calls and voicemails went unanswered. The ball was rolling and Pitch@Palace Africa Edition went forward.
To make up for the trouble caused to the African innovators, the Academy staff promised that pitching would be followed by networking opportunities with British businesses and supporters, a unique opportunity to make UK business connections. Our previous year included a UK visit, but that succeeded in making UK business connections because of a week of carefully planned introduction meetings, which we individually curated for each innovator and their unique businesses.
After the pitches at Pitch@Palace concluded, the networking portion was cut down to around 20 minutes without explanation, cutting off people in the audience from offering their support. The next day, everyone was on a plane back home. Somehow, the very purpose of the pitch event had been lost.
While the African innovators expressed disappointment to us privately, their parting words to The Academy where those of gratitude. As they had explained to me at the start of the program, nobody wanted to risk criticizing because that would hurt their chances of winning. So instead, they thanked the Academy for the great experience of seeing London and staying at a nice hotel.
This is where I decided I couldn't be personally involved with The Africa Prize any more. I wanted to help Africans rise, to help their solutions, but contributing to this was being part of the problem.
Do motivations align?
There had been signs of this all along, and I should have been more humble rather than brazenly trying to overcome it. I thought it was better to at least try. Now, it was clear that political agendas would not only prevail, they'd use my work against the goal I was working toward.
In foreign aid, there's a known pattern of paraded innovators bouncing from one grant program to another, knowing they can keep building their fame. They keep winning prizes and grants from competing foreign powers, without needing to make real progress.
In fact, trying to make your idea work might reveal that it won't, so better to stay where you are and keep selling the potential instead of the results. It's not just opportunists who fall into this - people with good intentions but poor results still get positive feedback, so continue to pitch and pitch. With foreign grant money in hand, you're 10 to 100 times better funded than your competition, so it's easy to push them out without delivering something viable yourself.
This doesn't just fund and promote the inept, it squashes the viable. In a way, it's a text-book case for how foreign aid often ends up counteracting the purpose of development.
Meredith and I had discussed this "grant tourism" problem in previous years of The Africa Prize. If your motive is to win free prize money easily, and not build a real business or deploy a life-saving innovation, all you need is a great story. You just need give the Academy some good press to make them happy. The Africa Prize, like most pitch competitions, has almost no fact-checking or due diligence, so it's easy to overstate your progress in pitches. As long as your story sounds good, everyone plays along. If everyone looks good, nobody looks too closely at your real results.
We'd seen this was slowly eroding the culture of the Africa Prize. We'd tried to emphasise commercial progress as a judging criterion, and made our head facilitators available to the judges as a form of fact-checking. But it had little effect on who the judges chose. My suggestion to award the grants based on targets-achieved rather than pitches was turned down; the funder wanted to give a big cash prize.
It was obvious why the previous years' winners were selected, so those with real business ambition or better demonstrated results saw that they couldn't win. The prize always goes to whoever gives The Royal Academy or The Duke Of York the best chance of a feel-good BBC story. So why try?
As educators, our bigger mistake was underestimating the underlying agendas within the Academy. The program funder was interested in recognition in the UK, press coverage and well-attended gala events. The Academy management was fearful of changing national politics following Brexit, and wanted to ensure a good position as a policy-making organization. The program manager had found a way to gain influence through The Duke Of York, which would help her build authority at the Academy and hopefully lead to better job prospects. Prince Andrew got to appear as a benefactor of African projects. All these issues had nothing to do with the express goals of supporting engineering innovation or stimulating entrepreneurship, but yet overran that purpose.
We'd helped start the program, and the program manager had even promised to treat us as "Africa Prize co-founders" with according control. But that was forgotten and institutional agendas and internal politics prevailed.
In the end, Meredith achieved her goal, and was promoted to Head Of Sustainable Development.
Understanding colleagues' ambitions and strategies, especially beyond the educational goals, reveals internal risk factors. There are other examples: university departments that compete with others for the most lucrative students. Corporate innovation programs as vehicles for career promotion. Most NGOs are driven by fund-raising activities, just as many prioritize PR over impact.
Our lesson learned was to be more aware of these agendas.
A program like this succeeds when the learners succeed, and that can only happen when the program is aligned to institutional goals and personal agendas. Designing and executing requires designing for coherence between all affected agendas. Or, recognise from the start that it's not about helping the learner.