Is good governance really key to success? Go figure

Saturday March 23 2013


By Frederick Golooba-Mutebi

There are many stories about “development” in Africa. For the most part they are about failures of one or another kind.

In education, one hears about lack of classrooms and even sanitary facilities, lack of scholastic materials, and the persistent absence of teachers from their posts.

Teachers abscond because they are unable to make ends meet on the meagre salaries that governments claim are all they can afford to pay them.

In health, just look up the data on mortality rates, whether they are of newly born babies or of those under the age of five, or even of pregnant women. For good measure, you may want to dig up statistics on deaths caused by preventable diseases.

It is not often one encounters a success story. On the rare occasions this happens, the success story is often about a small project in one isolated village or region and one that is difficult to reproduce elsewhere or even “scale up.” That explains why such success stories are often presented as “pockets” or “islands” of excellence.

But there are also countries where things generally work well. Observers used to failure are often taken aback when they encounter them. And then, very quickly, they begin to wonder, often rather loudly, whether the isolated successes are sustainable.

Underlying the reaction is an interesting subtext: Africa’s success stories tend to be identified with particular leaders and their peculiar way of seeing the world and their place in it, often those concerned about legacy.

The question about the sustainability of success becomes pertinent because, as those who pose it always argue, there is no knowing what will happen after such leaders are gone. The uncertainty stems from the almost general absence in African countries, of strong institutions capable of sustaining gains made under the leadership of a particular person.

Recent developments have produced three stories where the issue of sustainability has reared its ugly head again.

In Malawi before Joyce Banda took over, the late Bingu wa Mutharika catalysed something of an agricultural revolution when he decided to embark on enhancing the country’s food security. He went for a massive rollout of subsidised agricultural inputs, leading to a massive jump in the production of maize, a key staple crop.

A few days ago, at a conference on the political economy of agricultural policy in Africa, a Malawian colleague told me, “The enthusiasm for that died with Bingu.”

In Kenya, now that he is gone, few can resist asking whether Mwai Kibaki’s stellar performance in the area of public goods delivery, particularly with regard to the attention-catching infrastructure development and renovation, will continue.

In Rwanda, in print and broadcast media as on social media sites, furious arguments are raging about whether Rwandans are prepared to put at risk all the gains their country has made under the leadership of President Paul Kagame by respecting his declared desire to step down at the end of his current and last term in office.

In many ways, then, questions about development in Africa are also questions about leadership and, inevitably, leadership succession. A groundbreaking comparative study of Asia and Africa by British academic Tim Kelsall, highlights the risk leadership succession poses to the continuity of such things as economic progress.

There are those who believe that once a constitution specifying what is supposed to happen is in place and is respected, there is no need to worry about leaders stepping down. Well, to people like them, Kelsall has some arresting propositions. He argues that what actually guarantees continuity is one of two things: The presence of “a dominant political party with a consensual decision-making tradition,” or “an organic bureaucracy insulated from the political process.” One of the two will, he argues, ensure that necessary “old commitments” are respected.

In an argument that may break the hearts of those who would rather invest confidence in “fashionable ideas about competitive politics, inclusive institutions and “level playing fields,” he demonstrates that history offers them no support. He shows that what really counts are strong, but not necessarily inclusive, institutions.

And where countries that have achieved success in terms of economic growth have been multiparty democracies during periods of high growth, such as Mozambique in Africa and Malaysia in Asia, dominant political parties were in charge, with the political playing fields emphatically uneven.

I had just been reading Kelsall’s persuasive and unconventional arguments when I happened to attend a discussion about the role civil society can play in policy making about agriculture in Africa.

As anyone who is familiar with the debate about “good governance” in Africa and where civil society or NGOs fit in would expect, there was much talk about how they hold governments to account, and how important that is. It made me wonder: How many successful economies or agricultural sectors have their origins in good governance, democracy, or civil society activism?

Frederick Golooba-Mutebi is a Kampala- and Kigali-based researcher and writer on politics and public affairs. E-mail: [email protected]