An empty podium. (Image: Florian Schmetz/Unsplash)
An empty podium. (Florian Schmetz/Unsplash)

Why are scores of organizations pushing competition across the African continent — and even getting national presidents to compete against each other for a prize worth millions?

Isn’t competition anti-social? Shouldn’t progressives always be against it? Don’t right-wingers say we’re just a bunch of anti-excellence, feelings-focused, participation ribbon-lovers hastening economic, scientific, and cultural stagnation?

To find out, check the following affirmations — do they trigger you, or are they progressive enough for your safe spaces and places?

  1. I have a right to exist.
  2. I am of high value to myself.
  3. I have a right to honour my needs and wants….
  4. I am lovable.
  5. I am admirable.
  6. I deserve to be treated… with respect by everyone.
  7. I am worthy of happiness.
  8. My happiness and self-realization are noble purposes.

All rights and no responsibilities. All self-focus and no social conscience. All reward and no effort, skill, or achievement.

And they have nothing to do with the left.

No, those declarations are the work of Nathaniel Branden, the second-most important figure in Ayn Rand’s cult of selfishness and depravity.

Branden, Rand’s chief acolyte and adulterous lover, wrote The Psychology of Self-Esteem (1969) and The Six Pillars of Self Esteem (1994), the latter of which contains the affirmations above (via blogger Clay Jones). Many sources call Branden “the father of the self-esteem movement.”

Nothing in those eight affirmations demonstrates any interest in competing for acclaim or reward — they’re declarations of absolute entitlement to them. The meaningless participation ribbons of Nathaniel Branden are the fault of right-wingers, not progressives.

It’s also clear that their economic system, misogyny, and violent racial hierarchy offer plenty of totally subverted competition. First Nations farmers were so good at agriculture that the genocidal settler regime used the 1889 Indian Act (among other dirty tricks) to stop them from mechanizing so settlers could “outperform” them. After World War II, big bosses simply fired thousands of high-performing female factory workers whose economic and industrial efforts were indispensable to winning the fight against fascism. Sean Gonsalves cites a University of California at Berkeley study revealing that just between 1929 and 1969, “Jim Crow” U.S. apartheid (Aryan Affirmative Action) cost African-Americans $1.6 trillion in collective wealth.

If we design competition to improve access, improve conditions, add resources, and fairly distribute rewards, that’d be a start towards justice. But the goal isn’t competition for its own sake — it’s to create higher quality of life: a better eco-system; enjoyable jobs, careers, and co-ops; beautiful, walkable cities with great services, with abundant “third spaces” (beyond home, work, and expensive commercial locations, such as libraries, clubs, and parks) and public art; and, engrossing entertainment, fitness, and leisure.

Let’s say your group wants to create a change without a contest. If you could budget $30,000 to pay one professional or team to do one task, you might get what you want. Or you might be disappointed with the single result, and be out thirty grand.

But if you offered $15,000 as a first prize for the much-needed solution, $10,000 for a second prize, and $5,000 for a third prize, you wouldn’t be stuck with a single-sourced product or process, but potentially dozens or hundreds of options that demonstrate far more variety, innovation, invention, and complexity than any single design team could ever have produced. That’s because competition is an asymmetric force-multiplier.

Unlike corporate contests that let contest-convenors seize all rights to submissions, a pro-social contest allows all contestants to own their results to build value wherever they can via their own co-ops, community groups, and teams. Or, the convenor can hire winners to do the work they’ve proven they can do. Every contestant who’s created practical solutions is now far closer to making the world better.

Now, maybe you’re balking at budgeting or raising $30,000 (the actual amount could be much smaller or much bigger). Then let’s face it — if you and your comrades can’t find a way to raise $30,000 from unions, grants, donations, crowdfunding, or your own piggy banks, then forget about the glorious revolution. It ain’t happening. Or, you could stop balking and just raise the money.

In his book Abundance, XPRIZE Chair Peter H. Diamandis (hate the rich all you like — but learn how to adapt their successful strategies for our goals) describes several historical innovation contents, including the 1714 £20,000 Longitude Prize for measuring longitude at sea — the original GPS. The 1795 12,000-franc prize for food-preservation went in 1810 to candy-maker Nicolas Appert for canning, which we still use today. (But, no kidding, the can opener took another 48 years.)

Then there’s Charles Lindberg who competed for the $25,000 Raymond Orteig Prize. After Lindberg flew his solo, non-stop, 33-hour flight on May 20, 1927, the aviation industry massively expanded. Within 18 months, U.S. air ticket sales went from 6,000 to 180,000. The population of pilots tripled. Manufacturers quadrupled the number of airplanes, changing the world.

Today, the XPrize innovation contests have produced advances in sub-orbital flight, oil spill removal, lunar landing, ocean health, medical “tricorders,” women’s safety, water abundance and more.

That being said, no pro-social contest has impressed me more for its scope and vision than the Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership. Mo Ibrahim, a Sudanese engineer, former communist, and according to TIME magazine, one of the most influential people in the world, was a British Telecom technical director who in the 1980s helped BT go mobile, before he launched his own Pan-African mobile telephony company Celtel to enormous success.

On a continent where land lines were rare, Ibrahim grew an industry that in 1999 had 7.5 million users to one that by today has 747 million users. After selling Celtel for $3.4 billion (a fortune built not from weaponry, tobacco, or mining, but a service we all need), Ibrahim didn’t build himself a solid-gold throne or launch himself into space on the most famous Freudian symbol in rocketry history.

Instead, he created the Pan-African Ibrahim Foundation, the world’s most comprehensive statistical bureau on quality of life and governance across the continent. The IF uses those measures to award the $5 million Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership, which recognizes recently retired African heads of state who have, through excellent governance, fundamentally transformed their countries for better security and rule of law; participation, rights, and inclusion; foundations for economic opportunity; and, human development.

That improved leadership creates new norms for governance and fuels citizens’ revolution of rising expectations, while driving economic progress (trade, not aid), innovation, social mobility, and capacity-building, so that African countries produce world-class performers industries and professionals in every field. Isn’t that what most people want for their countries? Ibrahim makes his own case here.

Communities can reap massive benefit from pro-social contests, as with the Chill Challenge for Affordable Off-Grid Refrigeration for Developing Countries. That contest awarded seven grants between $30,000 to $50,000 for low-cost refrigerator and community ice-maker prototypes in places where there’s no guarantee of 24-hour electricity. Refrigeration is a major component of food security and pharmaceutical safety, and therefore public health and economic growth.

In scores of fields across Africa’s 54 countries, countless innovators are entering pro-social contests such as the Seedstars Digital Democracy Challenge 2021 for young creatives, the African Tech Innovators and Entrepreneurs, the Namibia Upcycling Competition, Digital Agriculture for Agritech Startups, the Afri-Plastics Challenge, the Green People’s Energy Challenge, Delivering Water and Sanitation, Innovative Solutions with Social Impact, Women’s World Banking, the Code Global Challenge 2021 for Developers Worldwide, Social Contests for Social Entrepreneurs, the Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation and, the biggest prize in history, the XPRIZE Carbon Removal Competition 2021 ($USD 100 million).

At this point, you could dismiss everything above by citing a million reasons to blame the funders of these contests. Or, in Canadian comfort, you could dismiss the brilliant strivers who will enter and win these contests to bring, not slogans, pamphlets, tweets, or memes, but measurable achievements for their communities and nations.

On the other hand, you could just start listing the many problems that your union, ethnocultural community, social organization, academy, faith community, or other group wants someone to solve, and then create your own pro-social innovation prize to fulfil those goals.

Want to use innovative methods and tech to organize a worksite? Want to demobilize fascists? Want to build sustainable housing or commercial co-ops? Want to make healthier and more inclusive communities? You don’t need to do it all yourself. Instead, ask the people.

To design your own contest, decide:

  1. What problems need solving? Whose? Where? Why? How can you design more equitable and just results?
  2. What opportunities need to exist? For whom? Where? Why? How can you design more equitable and just results?
  3. How can competitors expand their own capacity? (In other words, don’t reward stasis. Reward invention and innovation.)
  4. How can competitors prove their methods, services, or products reliably work? What are your clear criteria to prove the work serves people?
  5. Who else wants this problem solved or opportunity created, and how can you ask them (via meetings or crowdfunding campaigns) to fund the contest?

No matter who you are, you’re not smarter than everyone. So to solve problems… ask everyone. And give them more reasons (than they currently have) to try.

Minister Faust - 2018 - UAAA BW

Minister Faust

Minister Faust is a teacher, speaker, workshop designer, community organizer, and award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared widely. An award-winning novelist, he’s best known for The...