Do Contracts Mean Anything in Africa?

I have been musing about what keeps sub-Saharan Africa in poverty.  One thing that I’ve observed is that contracts, whether written or oral, don’t seem to mean very much.  I know of an African who signed a contract that he would return to Africa after his training but apparently never intended to do so and remains here in North America.  Oral contracts also have little worth because bait and switch tactics are not uncommon:  for example, a friend who grew up in South African and now lives in Canada once sent a large sum of money to youth minister back in Capetown with the belief that it would be used to purchase a automobile to be used for ministry.  Instead, the youth minister used it to pay a bride price so he could marry.  My friend said that he broke all communication with the youth minister when this happened.

We can be critical of Western individualism, and Africans are very good at putting people first.  But many Africans envy the West without of knowledge of how it actually works.  Every aspect of Western economy depends on the sanctity of contracts.  The vast majority of the time, these contracts work.  For example, if I go down to my local Staples and buy an item, I know that I can return it within 30 days for a full refund.  That is a contract.  And it works, and I’ve exercised my 30-day option many times.  As a result, I am a loyal patron of Staples; I will gladly pay more for item knowing that I have the option to return it if it is unsuitable for me.  In everyday life, we live according to many such contracts:  with our employers, with the phone company, with the gas company, with our bank, with our investment advisors, with Mastercard and Visa; when we buy house, or when we buy a furnace, a new kitchen, or windows for the house.  Without valid contracts, life in North America would cease to function and chaos would ensue.  And yet, in dealings with Africans, keeping a contract seems to be optional.  Is this not one reason for the chaos that exists in much of Africa today?

Contracts that don’t function in North America are reason why we have courts to deal with disputes.  In the final analysis, here in Canada I have made hundreds of contracts that work well, but I’ve only had a few that didn’t, such as with my sports club, the Pavilion in Thornhill, where it took over 4 months to get them to honor an oral contract.  Yet when it comes to Africa, I’ve come to think that the exception is the rule; I have had a much higher percentage of contracts with Africans that did not work than I’ve had here in North America, and I’ve come to believe that the lack of priority given to the honoring of contracts is one of the main reasons Africa does not have a well-functioning economy.

Yet we talk a lot about the growth of Christianity in Africa.  Christians however should be willing to honor contracts.  So one would think that the more Christian Africa becomes, the more contracts would be worth something.  Admittedly, cultural transformation takes time.