In a moment of madness, I toyed with the idea of running for president of Uganda. I had the hubris to imagine I am the guy who can solve its myriad problems because President Yoweri Museveni is incompetent and his perennial challenger, Dr. Kizza Besigye, is a demagogue. I sought to be scientific and drew up a budget that could provide a modest basket of public goods and services associated with a modern state – education, healthcare, agriculture extension services, clean water, electricity, roads, etc. My conclusion was depressing and – I hope – illuminating.
Without bothering the reader with too much statistical detail on wages and other capital investments, the budget I drew up using ministry of Finance and World Bank figures was modest. It totaled Shs210 trillion or $1,700 per person per year. Then something struck me: This financial year, Uganda has revenues of Shs11.3 trillion and a budget of Shs18.3 trillion i.e. $150 per person. Compare that to the U.S. federal, state and local government that will spend $20,900 per person in 2016. I know that Ugandans often like to compare their government’s performance with that of the U.S. But how can Uganda govern itself like the USA on such a small budget?
Perhaps a better approach would be to ask how America governed herself when it had public expenditure of $150 per person per year. I searched for this and found it was in the year 1860. America had a population of 31 million people and a public expenditure of $178 million. When adjusted to inflation, it comes to $4.93 billion or $159 per person in 2015 dollars. I also searched the structure of US society in 1860. I found that it was 20% urban and 80% rural – exactly as Uganda today.
Looking at U.S. federal, state and local governments spending for that period, I realised the U.S. government did not spend a penny on agriculture, healthcare, education, pensions, or welfare. Were U.S. leaders ignorant of their duty to provide these public goods and services to citizens? Were they corrupt, cruel or insensitive to the welfare of citizens? There was cruelty in America e.g. slavery. Yet I am inclined to believe the main reason was affordability. Public revenues were insufficient to fund a larger basket of public goods and services.
Yet citizens of poor countries today expect governments to provide public goods and services associated with a modern state even if their revenue is miniscule to govern this way. The result is that governments spread their resources too thin leading poor supervision and hence corruption and incompetence.
Africans tend to hold their governments to standards of Western nations in spite of their vastly different social and economic structuresI tried to compare Uganda (Africa) with Western Europe. In 1820 all the nations of Western Europe had a higher per capita income than Uganda today: Belgium, $2,400 in 2015 dollars at PPP, France $2,064, the average for Western Europe was $2,187. USA was $2,340. Uganda’s per capita income at PPP in 2016 is $2,000. So I asked myself: How were they governing their people at a similar per capita income, per capita revenue/expenditure and social structure (urban-rural) as Uganda today?
None of them did so by delivering a wide range of public goods and services that we associate with a modern state. They relied on patronage, prepends, spoils-system (otherwise called corruption today) for legitimacy and on repression for compliance with their rules. Then I noticed something: all these societies had a similar social structure as Uganda (and other poor countries) today – a large non-educated peasantry, a small educated urban middleclass, and capitalist development in its infancy. Doesn’t this social structure engender a specific form of governance?
The concept of governmental legitimacy being derived from the ability of the state to provide a large basket of public goods and services to citizens such as healthcare, education, electricity, clean water, roads, pensions, housing etc. is very recent. It begins in the late 19th century, acquires significance during the Great Depression and gains full expression after World War Two. Yet for the West to adopt this model, it had undergone industrialization, urbanisation and the growth and expansion of new social forces like a large and educated middle class, a diverse civil society and organised labour. But most critically, it was made possible because of the enormous growth in the revenues of the state. The model evolved to consolidation in the West, but was transplanted to unprepared parts of the world as a religion.
There is today an implicit assumption in development literature that governments that provide a wide range of public goods and services, and adopt democracy and human rights standards create the right conditions for development. But this claim is ahistorical. Western nations did not become rich because they were governed that way. That is the myths they have created. They govern their citizens that way today because they are rich. The welfare state is a byproduct of the development process, not a cause of it.
There is today an implicit assumption in development literature that governments that provide a wide range of public goods and services, and adopt democracy and human rights standards create the right conditions for development.Otherwise the classical state was a war-making machine. As Charles Tilly has argued, states made war and war made states. The legitimacy of incumbents was derived from rules people generally agreed conferred authority to those in power. That was the concept of the “divine right of kings to rule” that prevailed throughout Europe and the “charisma” of individual leaders – like Napoleon (as Max Weber postulated). America, being a constitutional republic, derived its legitimacy from electing its officials. But they were not required to provide the current basket of public goods and services that we associate with a modern state as the USA budget of 1860 shows.
I noted that, in the past, across Western Europe and North America, rulers governed almost exactly as we see in poor countries today – on a combination of patronage to powerful local elites and repression for those who resisted. Then a heresy began to grow in my mind: Could the leaders of poor countries not be as cruel and selfish as the high priests of development and democracy in Western media and academia keep telling us? May be the governance strategies of our leaders reflect the structural conditions of our societies at the moment, not their individual character.
It then became clear to me that by adopting a governance model based on developed societies, poor countries have boxed themselves into a tight corner. They don’t have the requisite financial and human resources to govern this way. So the state is overdeveloped in function but underdeveloped in capacity – its reach goes far beyond its grasp. This must be the biggest source of corruption and incompetence.