Building a Culture of Whistleblowing in Africa

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    “I hope you are not one of those people who think Africa is a country. Africa is a continent.” Attendees of the session titled “Cultural Orientation and Whistleblowing in Africa,” led by Rabiu Olowa, CFE, got a good chuckle out of this opening statement. During his session at the 30th Annual ACFE Global Fraud Conference, Olowa shared a few factors that influence and affect whistleblowing culture in Africa. Before going into the factors, though, Olowa made sure attendees understood a few basic things about Africa itself and about his background.

    First, he emphasized the fact that there are 54 countries in Africa, and each one of those countries has its own unique culture. As a whole, according to Olowa, the practice of whistleblowing has not been widely accepted by corporate Africa. “There is need for Africa, there is need for government and those responsible for government to reinforce their efforts on what are the root causes for corruption.” Over the last year, Olowa has been gathering research in pursuit of his Ph.D. He wants to understand the role that culture plays in whistleblowing, so he encouraged attendees to share their own experiences and opinions on the culture throughout Africa.

    After setting the stage, Olowo walked attendees through several different cultural factors that, according to his research so far, work against a culture of whistleblowing in Africa.

    Collectivism
    Olowa told attendees that the most widely studied types of cultural orientation are individualism and collectivism, which are characterized by how much a person stresses their own goals compared to the goals of their group. Well-known individualistic cultures would be the U.S. or the U.K., where personal ideas and goals are given more importance than those of the group. Collectivism, on the other hand, emphasizes the actions and behaviors that benefit the group. “As children we are taught to think as ‘we,’ rather than ‘I,’”he said. Olowa was careful not to emphasize one cultural view as better than the other —they are merely different ways of seeing and moving through the world. Where this comes in with whistleblowing, though, is that sometimes that loyalty to the group can prevent someone from speaking up against wrongdoing.

    Power distance
    To start this section out, Olowa shared a slide that had two rules in bold print. He told attendees that these rules were the only rules that mattered when it came to understanding the concept of power distance.

    Rule #1: The boss is always right.

    Rule #2: If the boss is wrong, refer to Rule #1.

    This slide got many appreciative nods from the room. With this sort of understood mentality, Olowa shared, this can make it hard to speak up against colleagues, especially when there may be wrongdoing from a superior in the workplace.

    Poverty
    “I’m going to need your help here,” Olowa said to kick off this section. “I’ve been trying to understand the relationship between poverty and corruption.” The average person in Africa is living off less than one dollar per day, Olowa shared, and the average person is also responsible for six other people. So for a lot of people, whistleblowing is not worth the risk. He asked attendees, “Is it poverty that gives birth to corruption? Or is it corruption that gives birth to poverty?” There was a lot of back and forth between Olowa and attendees, and the opinions varied greatly.

    The last person to share his thoughts said, “If you look at Africa and the poverty level, [corruption] tracks well and better in an area where there is poverty. That is why I say corruption is an intelligent person. When there is poverty, it knows.” Several people in the room spoke their agreement with that statement.

    Throughout the entire session, the crowd offered a lot of personal anecdotes and struggles that they’ve faced in corporate Africa, but there seemed to be an undercurrent of hope that things were moving in the right direction, albeit slower than many in the room would like.

    “Whistleblowers do an immense service to their society at their own risk and cost,” Olowa said toward the end of his presentation. “The least we can do for whistleblowers is protect them.” Fraud examiners, he concluded, are on the front lines of getting that message across and being a voice to protect whistleblowers, specifically in Africa.