Why the competition for power is always a quarrel over delusions rather than a contest over public policy
I argued in this column last week that governments in poor countries cannot govern by delivering a large basket of public goods and services associated with a modern state because they don’t have the human and financial resources to do so. The state in Africa faces a huge mismatch between financial human resources capacities on the one hand and the governance standards inherited from the West on the other. A significant source of our frustrations as Africans emanates from this mismatch.
Let me illustrate this with the state of our roads. During the last presidential election campaigns, the opposition made a strong case of the sorry state of our roads. There were videos online showing motor-vehicles stuck in mud along roads in a poor state of disrepair. My initial bias (or conviction) was that this is largely because of corruption at the Uganda National Roads Authority (UNRA) and state incompetence generally. But I have learned not to allow my biases to drive my conclusions. So I did research.
Our country has a road network of 68,000km. These include national trunk roads, district roads, streets in cities and towns and community roads under sub counties. It costs Uganda about $800,000 to
build a kilometer of tarmac road. Uganda has only 4,200km of tarmac roads. Therefore, if Uganda were to tarmac the rest of her road network (63,800km) it would need $51 billion. This financial year, our total budget is $5.4 billion. Even if there was zero corruption, it would take Uganda 10 years of its entire budget going to road construction alone for us to have tarmac roads everywhere.
Simply put, Uganda is too poor to pay for good roads.Well, not many reasonable people in Uganda are asking for tarmac roads in every village. So can’t we afford to build and maintain gravel (murram) roads in good condition? So I went hunting for figures
on this. It costs $150,000 to construct a kilometer of standard gravel road. Out of 63,800km of gravel roads, only 10,000 are in good to fair condition. It would cost Uganda $8.07 billion to bring all her gravel roads to good condition – that is 150% of the country’s annual budget.
Secondly, because of our terrain and rains, it costs $15,000 to ensure periodic maintenance (once in a year) and regular maintenance (spot graveling, slashing and clearing drainage) of a kilometer of gravel road per year. Gravel roads deteriorate very fast and cost more to maintain. Therefore, maintenance costs for 63,800km of our current gravel road network alone would cost $960m – 96% of our road’s budget this financial year. This does not include salaries for staff in government ministries, consultancy fees for design of these roads etc. Simply put, Uganda is too poor to pay for good roads.
These findings have led me to rethink the entire discourse of development and politics in poor countries. Nationalist politicians in colonised territories sought independence on the claim that colonised peoples were not served by government because of the racial discrimination of colonialism. They demanded independence in large part because they wanted to extend public goods and services that were restricted to colonialists to the rest of the population. This critique was partly correct. Colonial powers had little interest in the welfare of the colonised. They invested little in education, healthcare, electricity and clean water to the colonised. They built roads and railways NOT to connect people so that they can trade but to connect areas of rich forestry, agricultural and mineral resources to ports.
Nationalist politicians hammered this point home in their struggle for independence. They derived their ideas for postcolonial administration from how colonial governments governed their own citizens at home. This is because in their home countries, colonial governments were by the 1950s providing their citizens with a wide range of public goods and services. Thus nationalist politicians staked the struggle for independence on the promise of delivering “development” i.e. in building a state that would provide public goods and services to all citizens.
However, I am inclined to believe that this critique of colonialism was only a part of a much bigger story. Even if colonial governments had wished to, they could not financially afford to govern their colonies the way they governed at home by providing a large basket of public goods and services to all the colonialised peoples under their charge. Therefore colonialists relied heavily on the two instruments that are affordable in a poor context – patronage (buying the loyalty of influential local elites) and repression. If the postcolonial state rules this way, it has more to do with this structural imperative (poverty) than the character of individual rulers.
I am not suggesting that the presence of money is enough to fix public services. The more complex developmental problem poor countries face is poor social organisation. Because of this, poor countries tend to get fixated on building things – hospitals, schools, roads. This is because these are visible to the eye of the voter or citizen. However, it is easier to build a hospital or school but much more difficult and complex to build a functional healthcare delivery system or good education system. The former requires money, the latter decent levels of social organisation.
Yet social organisation is a result of long term processes of internal attitudinal change – in values, norms, habits, behavior and shared mentalities. There are things that work perfectly in developed countries because of the actions of multitudes of ordinary citizens anonymously doing many small tasks. Many of these tasks require little thinking. They are things they take for granted and execute out of habituation.
The people of Britain are not successful as a society because of the British state. Rather the state in Britain is a consequence and a reflection of British social organisation.
The formal structure of the British state that we see and have borrowed from works well because it is held together and is driven by a dense network of informal ties, values, norms and mentalities of the British people.
This formal structure of the state in Britain was transplanted unto our societies through colonial conquest and was adopted at independence. But, from our analysis above, what really makes systems work is not the formal structure but its internal logic. British systems work because the people who work in them are British and take many things for granted. The people who manage the postcolonial state in Uganda are not even Ugandans (a very unreal term) but a collection of many cultures with different mentalities.
When you combine limited financial resources with rapid expansion of services to everyone in the context of anachronistic institutions, what you have are the disasters we see in our public sector.