About me.

Andrew M. Mwenda is the founding Managing Editor of The Independent, Uganda’s premier current affairs newsmagazine. One of Foreign Policy magazine 's top 100 Global Thinkers, TED Speaker and Foreign aid Critic

Monday, August 15, 2016

Weapons of the poor

How per capita revenues and per capita spending influence governance strategies of nations

How do you govern a country that has average public spending per capita of $450 annually in Purchasing Power Parity (PPP)? Is it possible to govern it using the same strategies as a country whose public spending is $22,000 per person annually? Yet all debate on governance today assumes exactly that. I have grown suspicious of this belief in large part because when one studies the governance strategies of today’s rich nations when they had the same per capita spending as today’s poor countries they look quite similar.

Poor countries rely in varying degrees on a combination of patronage and repression to govern. Of course they also deliver public goods and services like security, education, health, clean water, electricity, roads and bridges. But this latter effort is often characterized by gross ineptness, absenteeism, incompetence and corruption. Poor governments add ideological weapons as well – promising “development”, democracy, respect for human rights, fighting corruption, and appeals to identity.

I have always argued that poor countries tend to rely largely on patronage and repression for governance because they are the most cost-efficient and cost-effective instruments in poor, ethnically diverse societies. Over the last few years of closely studying public policy implementation, I have come to believe that patronage and repression are not just a cost-effective and cost-efficient governance strategies. They are also the only affordable ones in governing a poor country.

Politicians are power-maximizing entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs in the market seek to maximize profits by minimizing costs. Equally entrepreneurs in politics do similar, seek power for the longest time at the least cost. Just imagine you are a president of Tanzania, Uganda, Senegal, Nigeria, Ghana or Kenya trying to figure out how to win the next election. You can invest your efforts in building political institutions and implementing public policies that ensure delivery of public goods and services to all citizens to win their support.

This is a daunting task that requires exceptional discipline, takes a very long time and most importantly, demands a lot of money. However, your country lacks the requisite institutional capacity, appropriate human skills and financial resources to deliver these efficiently and effectively. And you have an election in a few years.

Alternatively, you can win the block vote of a given community by appointing influential pillars of opinion from the community to powerful and lucrative positions in government. Such pillars of opinion may be traditional leaders, respected community elders, rich businesspersons, articulate youths, religious clerics and successful professionals.
These influencers act as a bridge between you and their co-ethnics. This is especially so in poor countries with strong attachments to identity. By selecting William Ruto as his vice president, President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya easily won over 90% of the votes among Ruto’s ethnic group, the Kalenjin.

If you come to think of it, this strategy is cost-efficient and cost-effective. Only a rare politician would ignore it – and I know only one today, Paul Kagame of Rwanda. If a politician can win the support of an entire community by appointing a few of its sons and daughters to powerful positions in government, that is surely most cost-effective and cost-efficient (in money and time) than trying to build hospitals and schools backed by a functional healthcare and education system in that community. Imagine the time, money and discipline required to achieve good public services.

Then a dilemma stares Kenyatta in the eye: what makes Ruto such an influential pillar among the Kalenjin? How does he attract the following of his co-ethnics? It is certainly his ability to deliver goodies to them: jobs for sons and daughters of the soil, public sector contracts for its businesspersons and other influential appointments.
This means professional competence has to play a secondary role in hiring people and companies to perform public services. It also means that Ruto must have access to financial resources to lubricate his network of agents that allows him to retain his preeminence within his community. In other words, corruption is the way such a system works, not the way it fails.

Although authoritarian governments have acted the same way, democracy is the weakest system to fight this governance model in large part because it relies more on convincing and therefore bribing people. And although religious or ethnic identity are the most visible expression of building such a governing or electoral coalition, I think it is economic circumstances of poverty that underpins this incentive structure.

I am aware I have painted with too broad a brush because there are a host of exceptions and divergences to what I amwriting. If money were all that was needed to run a nation on modern governance strategies, Equatorial Guinea with a per capita income of $36,000 at PPP would be a model example inAfrica. Yet the model inAfrica is Rwanda with per capita spending of $208 annually. However, this argument has wide application among poor nations.

Therefore post genocide Rwanda is really an oddity. For in that country, the primary strategy of government in its search for support and legitimacy is not coopting ethnic and religious elites into the governing coalition but delivering public goods and services impersonally to anonymous citizens. This is not to say post genocide Rwanda does not have elements of patronage. Rather, it is to say that patronage plays a secondary, not primary role – indeed a distant secondary role.

It is tempting to argue that all countries in Sub SaharaAfrica should govern like Rwanda. Like most of its contemporaries, Rwanda is poor and largely rural. In fact its per capita revenue, per capita public spending and per capita income are all belowmost of the nations in its comparison group. Yet it governs like a modern state. If it can do it, surely many others should be able to follow suit.

This is an argument I have made so many times that it defies imagination that I have been increasingly retreating from it. I am now inclined to believe there is a combination of factors that have made Rwanda’s success possible. I will discuss them in another article. However, they are rare to find and difficult to recreate.
Indeed, if it were possible to successfully replicate the Rwandan experience, many leaders in Africa would have done it. Indeed some like Thomas Sankara in Burkina Faso and Murtala Mohammed in Nigeria attempted it and got killed in the process.
Intellectuals will contribute best to the governance of poor nations when they stop assuming they can be governed like rich nations and ask: how does one govern a poor agrarian society?



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