By Matthew Ayibakuro
It is almost impossible to go through any material on development in Africa without coming across the word corruption. Hardly any speech on development of countries in Africa would come to an end without the mention of the “C” word. It is the go-to word, the toast of academics, analysts, practitioners, politicians, anyone really. In fact, irrespective of the country or sector you are interested in on the continent, when asked what the major challenge is, you cannot go wrong by starting your answer with the almighty “C” word. Anything else comes after the big “C”.
However in a continent where most countries multi-ethnic and are still grappling with achieving sustainable economic growth in an unfair global trading system, maintaining political stability, confronting terrorism and other security challenges and dealing with social inequities, amongst others, is corruption the only impediment to development in countries in Africa? In fact, is it even the major challenge?
The current state of the discourse on the subject or corruption in Africa is a demonstration of how the narrative of a subject can so easily be refashioned and redirected with reckless abandon. Until the famous speech of the then president of the World Bank, James Wolfensohn in 1996 when he referred to the cancer of corruption as a major barrier to development which had to be dealt with urgently, corruption was considered one of the many challenges to development. As far back as 1988, the Africa Leadership Forum identified some of these challenges to include capacity building, food security, efficiency of trade investments, regional and sub-regional economic integration, food security, inequality and poverty.
Post-1996, following Wolfensohn’s speech at the annual general meeting of the World bank, the Bank and other financial institutions have led the way in making corruption the major focus of development efforts. Budgets for good governance-related development assistance has burgeoned at an alarming rate. Everyone else has followed and there are no signs of this narrative and therefore focus dwindling anytime soon.
Elections in most countries in Africa are growingly becoming about corruption and little more else. The most recent presidential elections in Nigeria provides a perfect example with the opposition candidate Gen. Muhammadu Buhari essentially riding to power on the promise of eradicating corruption. Very few appeared to have taken note that the election was held at a time when the economy of Nigeria was in dire straits following the slump in oil prices, the value of its currency was also in free-fall and its economic prospects for the rest of the year, at least, looked uncertain. All these challenges were however overshadowed by the issue of corruption. That Nigerians elected Buhari is yet another indication of the popular belief that the end of corruption would automatically translate to development. The economic woes of the country remain and four months after the election, there are no indications in terms of policy to steer the country to economic safety.
It would be foolhardy to deny the importance of fighting corruption in countries in Africa. However, doing so at the expense of most other pivotal issues challenging development on the continent might prove to be even more costly than corruption itself on the long run. The challenges identified by the Africa Leadership Forum referred to above remain relevant and visible today on the continent as they were decades ago, and whereas fighting corruption is intrinsically linked to solving some of them, most others have little or nothing to do with the corruption. Questions are being raised on whether some African countries have even successfully shaken off their colonial legacies and how this might be impacting on their development. More global issues impeding development of countries on the continent like the unfair imbalance in the multilateral trading system under the WTO also continue to impede meaningful economic growth.
The majority of people who prioritize the fight against corruption appear caught up in the challenge of deciphering the myth and the reality about the prevalence of corruption on the continent. Between the consistent headlines and sleek research findings of organisations like Transparency International, it is hard to criticise their conviction.
But it is time for African countries to recognise the fact that achieving sustainable development and having a chance of catching up with the rest of the world in terms of development goes beyond just fighting corruption. Ignoring the many other equally vital issues would be at the peril of countries on the continent. Those who succeed in eradicating, or at least minimising corruption, might just wake up to the fact that corruption was probably just a little more than a needle in a haystack in this prodigious field of development.
By Matthew Ayibakuro
In the world, people are described in different ways depending on a range of factors not worth exploring here: White, Black, Asian and so on. When completing forms in Britain for instance, the categories get a lot more interesting – Black or Black British, Arab, Asian or Asian British, Chinese, Mixed, White and even an ‘unknown’ category for those who, well, do not understand their particular categorisation.
Countries are similarly described too, albeit in a more sophisticated manner. Depending on the level of development as indicated on UNDP’s Human Development Report, a country could be termed a low-, medium-, high-, or very high human development country. As expected, over eighty percent of African countries are in the low human development category. No surprises there. It’s a trend. It’s normal. On its part the World Bank classifies countries into four categories: low income, lower middle income, upper middle income and high income countries. Unsurprisingly economies in African countries fall into the first two categories, dominating the first in particular. Beyond these, fashionable descriptions of countries that are ‘not developed’ are not hard to come by; ’Underdeveloped’, ‘poor’ ‘third world’. . . .
However, the most prominent of all taxonomies is the blanket categorisation of countries into developed and developing countries. In Africa, our countries are developing countries. That is the way it is. It has always been that way, and it would probably continue that way for the foreseeable future. The origin of this classification of countries as developed or developing is debated, but it is generally understood that the term was introduced in line with the development drive of the 1960s in describing the relationship between newly independent countries, especially in Africa and those countries ‘vigorously pushing’ for their development.
‘DEVELOPING’. It is positive word. It denotes forward movement – progress. But what exactly are developing countries moving towards? Who determines the ultimate goal of this progress? What is the ultimate destination of their development journey? Will they ever arrive at that destination, and will they even know when they have arrived? In other words, will the current crop of perennial developing countries ever get to the point of being addressed as ‘developed’ countries, or being developed countries in fact?
Whilst it appears that should be ultimate goal, I am not sure if it would ever be achieved. Development theory has long moved past the economic development paradigm set in the 1960s where the development of countries could be measured by a simple calculation of GDP and other statistical indicators. Today, a country’s development is now measured by goals like political order and stability, equity and democracy with all its numerous attendant attributes, like free and fair elections and human rights and all the other globally-accepted high-horse sounding virtues that African countries are not known for. Perhaps African countries are not known for them because we do not know them, because our societies were not built on those foundations, because our culture and values are very different from these goals.
But no, I cannot think that way. That is the way only traditional ‘uncivilised’ people think. It is the reason we had to develop – modernise in the first place. So for over sixty years, African countries have been striving to develop, to modernise their countries based on the models of the ‘developed countries’. The strife appears perpetual. It is hard to see the finish line. It is as if the goals are being updated after every decade, depending on what big institutions like the IMF would call the ‘World Economic Outlook’.
At other times, we owe the change of goals to the genius thoughts of some smart nobel-prize winning individual, like in the 1990s when Amartya Sen declared that development was no longer about the economy or infrastructure, but about ‘Freedom’ – increasing the capabilities of individuals to be able to freely live the lives they can. This caught on fast and firmly too. The World Bank, IMF, UN and all the other big ships sailing on the ocean of development quickly readjusting their sails and headed towards Freedomland. And why not? Everything else that has, at one point or the other, being pursued as development could be easily subsumed under prerequisites for freedom – education, infrastructure, economy, democracy, political stability, etc. All these and more were needed for individuals to enjoy and express their freedom. Everyone had to readjust.
For the developed countries, it was easy. These are the things they are known for, the things on which their societies have experimented for hundreds of years and become so good at. In fact, I doubt there was a real need for adjustment at all. But not so for African countries. Even before many had driven lap one like in Formula 1 races, they came to realise many more laps have just been added to the race. More fuel than anticipated would be needed, more parts, more pit stops. No need to worry, the developed countries and the big development institutions would provide support – aid, technical expertise and everything else in-between.
In fact, they will even throw in some extras like annual reports to tell each country how good or really bad they are doing. Those annual reports – on corruption, on human rights, on human development, on the economic outlook – there are reports for almost anything these days, I lose count. But they are quite easy to use though, for Africans in particular. I will let you in on the secret formula in using them – just start from the bottom up. It won’t be long before your country pops up! Except of course, you are Botswana on the corruption index – they are the ‘miracle of Africa’ in that regard. Miracles! How we need them. If we are to win this development race, we would need lots of them. Perhaps more than anything else.
The most prominent beacon for developing countries right now is the Millennium Development Goals, according to which developing countries by 2015 should eradicate extreme poverty, achieve universal basic education, promote gender equality and empower women, reduce child mortality, improve maternal health, amongst others. It is worthy of note that the specific targets under each of these goals are often the barest minimum possible. Hence, even when a developing country achieves universal primary education, there is yet secondary education and tertiary education to be attained before that country would stand a chance of being considered a member of the comity of developed countries.
More so, with the rate at which technology is advancing, it would seem obvious that by the time developing countries get to the current stage of developed countries, the latter would be way ahead of the pile. Perhaps the determinant of development might then be the number of robots co-existing with humans in a particular country or the countries that own colonies in outer space. Exaggerated theory, perhaps. But the point is that in the current state of things, it would appear that certain countries – mostly African countries – are doomed to be developing countries – second class countries if you will, in terms of development – forever.
Some have suggested that the measure of development should rather be the rate of happiness amongst citizens of a particular country without particular reference to income, infrastructure or other such measures. The merits of theories like this notwithstanding, countries in Africa might just fare better under such standards. In any case, there is a serious need for a change in paradigm. Otherwise, developing countries will find themselves perpetually running a race where the strategy for victory is determined by their opponents, and the tape at the finish line also held by their competitors who may continue shifting it at will. There is no winning such races, not even for our long distance maestros from East Africa.