How the debate on governance in Africa is a toxic combination of high emotion and little knowledge
It is fashionable across our continent to condemn governments for poor delivery of public goods and services. This, it is argued, is caused by corruption, incompetence, and greed by our leaders. This is captured in the modern lexicon as “bad governance”. Yet in spite of many changes of government, and with the exception of post genocide Rwanda, no poor country can avoid this accusation.
I argued in this column last week that what we call “bad governance” is not only the most cost effective and cost efficient way of managing power relations in the context of poverty, it is actually the only affordable way of doing so. But first let me make a caveat.
My argument that poor countries have poor delivery of public goods and services because they lack sufficient funds to do better is a statement of fact, not a call for inaction. For every poor country (or even a rich one) there is always room for improvement. Allegations of corruption and greed are not false. But they are not the fundamental reason our nations perform poorly. The way our politicians manage our nations has very little to do with their character and much more to do with our context of poverty.
Imagine the profile of the median voter in a poor country. His/her income per year is about $700 to $1,500, lives in a mud house with rammed earth floor, has two poor quality meals a day, buys clothes twice in a year, eats meat once in a month and has limited access to poor quality education and health services. These circumstances give such communities a set of moral values and expectations of what better off people are supposed to do for them. Equally the better off in such communities have a clear sense of obligation when people come to them seeking personal favours.
Now imagine two politicians seeking the attention of this voter. Politician A is public-spirited and promises improved health and education services, water supply and better roads to constituents. Politician B is self-interested. He has sold his house or depleted his savings or even borrowed from the bank to run his campaign. He also promises improved public goods and services – because anyone can do that. But he goes a step further and also buys meat, rice or alcohol, t-shirts etc. which he distributes to voters.
Promises of public policy can only be delivered at a later date. So they are uncertain. And voters know from experience that such promises rarely materialise. This is largely because – even with the best of intentions – our nations are too poor to deliver on such promises. Politician B has added value to his campaign by addressing the existential needs of his constituents. So he has already delivered something. For many years, I have wrestled with the morality of such politicians.
For most people, Politician A is preferable. Politician B is corrupt because he “bribes” voters. Here is the moral dilemma: when Politician A campaigns at a rally of impoverished voters, many of whom are hungry, but does not address their immediate existential needs and instead promises them public goods and services, to be delivered at some later date, is he being moral? Whose morality are we talking about?
Contrary to fashionable attitudes, Politician B could be more moral within the context of a poor rural community. By giving voters rice, salt, and soap, he is actually addressing their immediate existential needs, something the state has criminalised. Why?
The morality of our political institutions is borrowed from Western countries. It is not rooted in the values of our people. Do voters consider a politician who gives them food during an election campaign, corrupt? In any case, we know that it took very long for Western nations to outlaw voter bribery. They did so after the median income had crossed a particular threshold.