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 1, 2019

The tyranny of expert advice


Why Africans need to look beyond the oversimplification of our development challenges

THE LAST WORD | ANDREW M. MWENDA | Last week, a member on a WhatsApp chat-group I belong to posted a video of a Singaporean professor explaining why that country transformed from a third world to a first world economy in a generation. The professor, Kishore Mahbubani, offers to give the “secret formula” behind this phenomenal success. It is an explanation a large section of global and African elites are always keen to embrace. This is driven in large part by belief that there is something wrong with our countries and political leaders.

Mahbubani’s “secret formula” to Singapore’s success is MPH where M stands for meritocracy, P for pragmatism and H for honesty. He argues that Singapore avoided the temptation for ideological and policy dogmatism and instead followed what worked i.e. was pragmatic. Of course, there is a thin line between pragmatism and opportunism, just like there is a thin line between being principled and being rigid. While I agree (to a large extent) with him on pragmatism, I found little to agree with on meritocracy and honesty.

For instance, he explains that Singapore created a system where public sector jobs were given on professional merit. But then he confuses academic performance with professional competence yet the two are quite different. He explains the selection of Lee Hsien Loong, the current prime minister of Singapore who is also a son of founding Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, on purely academic grounds by saying that he was a top student at Cambridge and later at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.

Often the most brilliant students in class rarely become the best politicians or administrators. They become lecturers. To be technically competent at a job does not require only high grades in class but a series of other attributes; like emotional intelligence to manage people and situations. Secondly, the most important quality for a public (or even private) sector employee is not even professional competence but loyalty. Of course the two are not mutually exclusive. However, if asked to choose between competence and loyalty, many employers pick the latter.

George Akerlof won the Nobel Prize in economics in large part by showing that is it not professional excellence or incentive pay that makes successful organisations. It is identity i.e. one’s identification with the goals of the organisation. In politics it would be called patriotism. Even in war, success does not go to the best-trained and most professionally competent militaries (even though that is an important factor). Rather it goes to the army with a strong commitment to the cause for which they are fighting.

Meritocracy is overrated. By most accounts, the United States overtook Great Britain as the world’s largest economy in 1888 as industrialisation accelerated. Yet up till 1890, there was not a single official in the U.S. government who had been recruited on the basis of professional merit. On the contrary, all public sector employees were being hired on nepotistic i.e. jobs were being given on the basis of political and social connection to relatives, friends and campaign agents.

There was resistance to the introduction of the civil service entry exam in Europe and the USA. Meritocracy in the Western world is a consequence not a cause of development. We see this in the works of Max Weber on capitalism and bureaucracy in the early 20th century. Even then, Weber made it clear that his arguments of meritocratic recruitment were an idealised version rarely found in reality. However, meritocracy has always been a valued attribute of recruitment into the public sector in East Asian – Korea, China and Japan. It dates as far back as 600-500 BC largely drawn from the teachings of Confucius and practiced over millennia.

According to Mahbubani, the biggest cause of failure in the development efforts of poor countries is corruption i.e. lack of honesty. This is the most popular misconception of development in contemporary thinking. Its adherents are committed to it as a religious doctrine in disregard to all historical and contemporary evidence. Most of the developed countries of today had high levels of corruption during their intense period of transformation from backward, poor agrarian societies into modern affluent industrial nations. China is rapidly transforming today against the backdrop of high levels of corruption – as did South Korea in the 1960s, 70s and 80s.

The reader should not think that I am calling for nepotism and corruption as virtues in our countries. Indeed, emotionally I get extremely upset at corruption and nepotism because they are unfair and immoral. However, it is wrong for an intellectual to mistake morally repugnant behavior for impediments to economic development.

Nations are not biological organisms the management of which depends only on technical considerations. They are social organism whose management involves complex social-cultural calculations. Leaders do not make decisions where choices are between right and wrong, good and bad. On the contrary, every decision they make involves tradeoffs.

For instance, the first condition of prosperity is not merit or honesty but order – the creation of a secure zone where people can trade and thrive. How leaders achieve this goal differs from one country to another depending on circumstances. In our multi ethnic peasant societies, order is established by first addressing the problem of identity. This is critical to make the different ethnic/religious groups who compose a polity feel a sense of belonging to the political community – Kenya, Senegal, Ghana, Uganda or Nigeria.

One way African leaders have achieved this is by building large and diverse electoral and/or governing coalitions. They coopt influential leaders of opinion from the different ethnic and religious communities such as traditional leaders, religious clerics, articulate youths, accomplished professionals, successful businesspersons etc. and bring them to the centre of power as ministers, ambassadors and other high ranking government officers. This is what creates the sense of belonging to their constituents. But it comes at a cost. For instance, leaders make a tradeoff between meritocracy and inclusion and choose loyalty over professionalism.

Secondly, how do these powerful ethnic and religious elites in poor countries secure the following of their communities? Through the extension of personalised benefits to their followers by connecting them to jobs, contracts and by giving charity – paying fees, medical bills and feeding their needy constituents. This is especially critical because poor countries simply do not have the resources to provide a large basket of public goods and services to all their citizens to the quality and quality desired. Resources to distribute such personalised patronage come through corruption. That is being pragmatic i.e. doing what works.

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