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Fri Nov 28 23:36:14 SAST 2014

Corrupt and greedy leaders keep Africa poor

Ian Mann | 29 August, 2010 00:000 Comments

Ian Mann: While it is obviously extremely difficult to generalise about a region comprising 48 countries that vary considerably in their economic and political circumstances, Dr Greg Mills does discern a common thread.

The main reason Africa's people are poor is because their leaders have made this choice.

Mills provides bold examples of this assertion such as the genocide in Rwanda, the destruction of Zimbabwe's economy, the 2005 famine in Niger, the war in Darfur, Somalia, Guinea, Angola, Congo, and so on. And he cites the less obvious and less headline-creating, but no less destructive examples of policy choices that have capped Africa's development.

Why has Africa failed to adopt the policies for growth that have proved successful in other parts of the world?

The usual, convenient answers are dismissed with cogent argument. No, Africa's poverty is not the result of lack of access to international markets; in fact Africa enjoys preferential access to international markets. Africa is not poor because its people do not work hard - low productivity is a function of many things, including poor health, inefficient land use and chauvinism. It is not because of a lack of technical expertise; expertise is for sale on the international market, (and probably accessible free, via donors!) Africa is not poor because it lacks natural resources - compared with Asia, it has an abundance.

Basing his conclusions on extensive evidence from a wide range of countries across the less-developed world, with widely differing circumstances, he comes to certain conclusions. To the degree that countries coming off a low base increase the opportunities for competition and reduce corruption, they are successful. Where there is transparency and accountability, low barriers to trade, reduced bureaucracy and simplified procedures, they make money for all. And where they don't, only the few with access to power make money, and can sip champagne in glorious luxury as they watch their countries descend into deeper misery and poverty.

Aren't the colonialists and the developed world at least partially to blame for the misery of Africa? This could be argued either way, but at best is true but useless, and bears a striking resemblance to lying on the psychologist's couch and blaming one's parents rather than making a life for oneself and family despite it all.

Singaporeans and Vietnamese seldom mention their history and clearly not because they have nothing to complain about. The Vietnamese, says Mills, never voluntarily talk about the war, "but are effusive when it comes to expressing a view on the economy, growth and future prospects".

From Costa Rica, El Salvador, Panama and Colombia, all high-growth economies with complex problems, Mills identifies a pattern of 13 issues of great relevance to Africa and South Africa.

The first is "Accept Differentiation" - there are different formulas for growth and development depending on circumstances. Another is "Security is a Critical First Step" - it is clearly impossible to make progress without improving the basics. Achieving security in Colombia's case involved rooting out corruption and having the military and intelligence leadership regularly take lie-detector tests.

"Politics Matters", as many economic problems are primarily political. In El Salvador, despite their inheritance, people met the challenges by building respect and capacity in their institutions and also devolved power. In their case this entailed dealing with political patronage and professionalising the civil service.

"Populism is no solution", as evidenced from Chaves, Morales, Ortega and Correa. Who would do business with a country where decisions are taken so arbitrarily?

"Leadership is the key" - and particularly leadership that focuses on identifying priorities and has hands-on management. Leadership that tells people what they need to know, not what they want to hear.

Just in case anyone thinks that being the richest country in Africa provides some special chance of avoiding descent into irrelevance, it is worth being reminded of Argentina's fate. This land rich in natural resources was once the sixth-largest economy in the world - and now ranks 57th.

What may citizens of any country expect from their leaders? At the very least that they make informed choices, based on the needs of the broad population, and not on their or others' narrow interests. Bad choices have been made because better choices in the broad public interest were in too many cases not in the leader's personal and often financial self-interest. But this raises the question as to why Africans have allowed this to happen, when democracy, or inklings of it, are ever more evident on the continent?

As with any complex problem, there is never one simple answer and to this problem there are many answers for the many differing entities. They range from the culpability of foreign powers who propped up corrupt and harmful regimes for their own purposes, to the willingness of the civil society to be seduced into accepting the "big man" entitlement.

The book would not be of great use to anyone if it were only to chronicle the successes of other developing states. Its value lies in its explaining, with the care of a fine academic, what and how they did it, never failing to highlight the context, and remaining cautious of overstatement or hasty generalisation.

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Corrupt and greedy leaders keep Africa poor

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