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, July 29, 2019

Criminalising being poor


Why governance standards set in the West and imposed on poor countries are dangerous

THE LAST WORD | ANDREW M. MWENDA | Last week, a friend posted on a social media platform an article by a US scholar about life in a democracy and an autocracy as imagined by Americans! The author argues that the enjoyment of a fulfilling life is a much more complex matter to be reduced to whether one either lives under a democracy or an autocracy. He also argued that Americans imagine every country that is not a democracy is the worst version of an autocracy or totalitarian state of the Nazi type.

However the author, like many Americans and other people from the West, assumes that America is a democracy where life for everyone is fine. My knowledge of the experience of many ethnic and racial minorities in American shows that many live under conditions of a fascist autocracy. This is in spite of, and also because of, the way America’s liberal democracy evolved. The belief that liberal democracy constrains bad government behaviour is based more on religious faith (a secular religious faith) than on evidence.

The genocide of native Americans and their disenfranchisement today, the enslavement of African Americans, later replaced by Jim Crow (the name of what was American’s apartheid system) and now by mass incarceration, the exploitation of labour and the discrimination against women etc. in America have all been done through and by America’s liberal democratic institutions. Liberal democracy, therefore, does not automatically end a nation’s ghosts.

Indeed, the struggle for civil rights by the different social groups of American society – poor white men, African Americans, women, workers etc. – was slow and hard. Thus in spite of (and precisely because of) regular elections, a free press, a large and diverse civil society and a representative parliament, it has always taken decades for any of the disenfranchised social groups to move the liberal democratic institutions of America towards reform. And even when reform has come, it has never been linear – it grows by feats and starts of five steps forward, three steps backward.

Yet this is not a condemnation or even a moral judgement of the American state and its ruling elites. Rather it is to underline the conservative worldview I hold and which in fact I learnt from some of the leading Western scholars like Edmond Burke and Frederick Von Hayek i.e. that the present does not exist by mistake. Any attempt to radically alter the institutional architecture of a society is likely to produce more harm than good.

Thus as a philosophy, conservatism abhors revolutionary change in favour of evolutionary change. This is for the simple reason that the world is much more complex in reality than in theory. Any attempt to impose a utopian vision on a messy and ever-evolving human landscape will fail or cause ruin. Americans ignore this their own historical experience and lesson, when they expect and actually demand that other nations should democratise within a week. This way, American officials seem to deny these countries of politics so that democracy is a result of a single decision by a single man or woman than being a result of long and slogging struggles whose progress is not even linear.

Secondly, most people take the idealised version of liberal democracy, which is rarely found in reality. Liberal democracy, like all other human institutions and systems has many flaws. There is indeed a wide gulf between the ideal as written in books and the practice of liberal democracy as lived by people in the West. But let me reserve this debate for another day. For now I want to deal with governance differences between rich and poor nations.

But first a caveat: there are many bad people in governments in poor countries, just like it is in rich ones. I am also inclined to believe that rich countries have better financial and institutional resources to reign in bad public sector behaviour. Equally I think poor nations have weak capacity to restrain bad rulers. So I do (often) get extremely angry at gross corruption, incompetence and lack of the public spirit among many leaders in poor countries. But this exclusive focus on the bad ones ignores the myriad other public-spirited officials who wake up everyday and put in an honest work effort. With that caveat we can now debate the more fundamental issues that shape governance.

The legitimacy of the state in the West, which stems to a large degree from the ability of the state to provide all citizens with a large basket of goods and services through arms-length and impersonal application of rules is underwritten by the availability of huge financial resources. This is the opposite of the situation in poor countries – where governments simply do not have the financial resources to win legitimacy this way. So leaders are literally forced to rely on cheaper and affordable strategies of gaining legitimacy.

It is not possible to govern a country with $200 public spending per person the same way you govern another where public spending per person is $20,000. It is here that patronage and clientelism (or what others may call corruption) gain ascendency. Budgetary constraints limit the governance options for poor countries. Leaders adopt governance strategies that fit their budget and context, cheaper ways to build legitimacy and secure public compliance with their rules.  I have grown to believe that what has been criminalised as patronage and corruption are actually the only affordable tools of governance available to leaders in poor nations.

Just because poor governments cannot govern like rich liberal democracies does not mean they cannot govern more justly, humanely, fairly, effectively, and in public interest and also be accountable. So when we as elites in these countries demand to be governed like Belgium because we read about its system from a book at university, we need to be realistic about what is possible within our nation’s financial means. This also means we must think of the moral standards we use to judge our leaders.

The current fad of “good governance” has actually criminalised being poor by labelling governance strategies of poor nations such as patronage and clientelism as corrupt. And once the word corruption is mentioned, then people get into religious mode. To suggest that poor countries should be allowed to govern within the means they have sounds like a suggestion to accommodate evil things that current governance discourse has labelled corrupt and backward. Yet the current obsession of an ideal governance model sets governance standards that poor governments simply cannot afford, however genuine their leaders may be.

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