The Three Dikgosi (tribal chiefs) Monument in the central business district of Gaborone, Botswana.
During a recent visit to Washington, D.C., I met with several think tanks and foundations, all of whom work with organizational partners in Africa. What struck me, anecdotally, was the absence of Botswana in all of it. Who works with them? Is it a case that few see the need to mention given its relative success?
Secondly, what accounts for the success of this landlocked African state, which, relegated to likely failure in the view of British officials, arose from one of the three poorest nations in the world at independence, to peerage with upper middle-income countries today? Scott Beaulier at the Mercatus Center is perhaps the best-known scholar assessing the issue, disproving several development models not only in theory, but in the actuality of Botswana’s growth.
Resources versus institutions
Some “in the know” argue in conversation that, unremarkably, Botswana’s success arises from its diamonds. Fellow African nations are endowed with far more mineral wealth, yet therein lie far higher rates of poverty and underdevelopment.
The nature of the development of institutions, including limited government, unintended in the benign neglect of British colonialism, and intended by the leadership of post-independent Botswana, holds part of the answer for its relative success. So too does the level of openness to the world of ideas and investment, and the strength of indigenous institutions, as shall be argued, drawing on the work of local African scholars.
A personal visit to Botswana for a meeting of the World Economic Forum a few years ago revealed vibrant commercial institutions, high degrees of professionalism virtually everywhere, and public safety, alongside both familiar and new big brands on the streets of the capital, Gaborone. This is not an uncommon observation, and is the type of inner city flourishing we seem to only dream of in a great many of our municipalities down in neighbouring South Africa.
A study in contrasts
Contrasting Botswana and Zambia, “both landlocked and resource-rich countries that were granted independence in the same period,” former Cato Fellow and leader of South Africa’s opposition Tony Leon demonstrates the importance of institutions, including free markets, as a case in point.
Leon wrote: "At independence in 1964, Zambia was Africa’s second richest country, whereas Botswana was referred to by a departing British colonial official as a 'useless piece of territory.' However, Botswana adopted market-friendly economic policies anchored in and bolstered by, a democratic environment that propelled it into a group of upper-middle income countries."
Zambia has languished at income levels close to those in 1960. However, Botswana’s per capita income, when adjusted for inflation and purchasing power parity, was $6,788.04 in 2016. It was $167 in 1960. Zambia’s was $984.44 at independence and only rose to $1,178.39 when measured in 2016. The disaster that befell neighboring Zimbabwe is perhaps an even more glaring and popular contrast in policy decisions and governance.
Average gross national income per capita in Botswana was higher than South Africa at its economic peak in 2008. Three decades of solid growth within a strong institutional context invites the question of how Botswana achieved sound institutions as opposed to simply crediting them for the country’s relative success. After all, at independence it was one of two in 48 sub-Saharan African countries that could be considered democratic.
How did sound institutions emerge?
Whereas the centralised state inherited from colonial powers provided a temptation too strong to give up for leaders in newly independent countries, it was precisely Britain’s lack of top-down impositions that generated the space for culture and community in Botswana. The country adopted and adapted institutions from the grassroots upwards. Robert Subrick, together with Beaulier, point out that the nation was committed to an ideology of cosmopolitanism, tolerance, and small government, also referred to as “experiment(ing) with some of the important classical liberal institutions of free choice and tolerance.”
Pre-colonial lekgotlas (gatherings), the equivalent of townhall meetings, were notably democratic. Whereas the House of Lords evolved in the British tradition of liberty, the concept in Botswana evolved into a House of Chiefs, providing a counterbalance to a lower house of Parliament. In each case, indigenous institutions encountering ideas from outside adapted to the terms of Tswana society by the country’s leaders.
Botswana defies the cultural and racial determinism of those who believe Africa’s problems are ethnic or tribal in nature. On the other side of the coin, it too defies the “soft bigotry of low expectations” that have characterized engagement with the continent by some with an excessive reliance on aid. The more one delves into the country, the clearer it becomes why there are virtually no foundations with a huge market to “help solve” the problems of Botswana, when compared to nearly all developing countries on the mainland of Africa. The country is one of the few in the region that pays for its own social safety net among Sub-Saharan African countries.
Whereas some may be tempted to conclude that the specific Tswana culture may hold the key to the country’s success, the problem is that the same culture and people exist elsewhere — much like the cases of East vs. West Germany and North vs. South Korea.
The question of culture and institutions
The Tswana people who constitute a majority in Botswana also reside found in South Africa’s North West province to the south, constituting a majority in that province as one of the largest ethnic groups in South Africa: four million Tswana speakers, in contrast to the entire 2.25-million-person population of Botswana. While decades of apartheid denied the majority the economic freedoms enjoyed in Botswana since their independence in the 60s, the continued compromise on property rights and the rule of law in South Africa have denied millions the rapid upward mobility experienced to the north.
There is no perfect society, and no one has claimed anything close to it in Botswana. Many warn that its earlier years were more successful in pursuing institutions that lead to growth, particularly limits on government in the first ten years of independence. Problems such as poverty remain a matter or critical importance, even if comparatively rates are at a much lower level than elsewhere in Africa, and today some worry the brakes are being placed on progress.
Nevertheless, the country holds important lessons from and for much of its post-Independence history. Improvements sustained beyond commodities and by authentic culture and enduring institutions of liberty remain the essence of success. (The Venezuelan tragedy began with years of commodity-driven growth, while lacking sound institutions). Secondly, ideas matter and their development does too.
Ideas in the proxy battles of the Cold War
Whereas poverty was conceived of in Marxist terms during the proxy battles of Western vs. Soviet influence at independence, several local African thinkers resisted the ideas of Marxism and its offshoots. It is not merely that Botswana took on outside ideas and luckily chose the right one — liberal democracy. Deep thought by Africans themselves has been vital to this trajectory.
A liberal tradition in Africa?
Temba Nolutshungu, executive director of the Free Market Foundation of Southern Africa recently reminded South Africans that he and fellow apartheid opponent Leon Louw played a significant part in a last-minute addition to the Constitution in 1996. They persuaded the Constitutional committee to insert a property rights clause into the Constitution. “Blacks had fought and died to get back property and property rights stolen from them,” argues Nolutshungu, who maintains the original fight against colonialism in the early 1900s was firmly rooted in a respect for free enterprise and property rights within the oldest liberation movement in Africa, the African National Congress (ANC, today the government of South Africa).
The ANC later formed a tactical alliance with the Soviet Union from the 1950s onward as pointed out in previous essays, though Nolusthungu has argued pro-liberty ideals can be found in the 1955 Freedom Charter — a battle cry document for a post-apartheid South Africa for which classical liberals had been valiantly arguing. I have heard the charter compared to the Declaration of Independence in its significance, despite its invocation by those demanding Marxist policies such as the nationalization of industry and property. Nolusthungu argues there are no grounds for such an interpretation.
George Ayittey, who addressed a packed audience at an Association of Private Enterprise Education conference in 2011, argues, “[T]he reason why Botswana has done very well is because it’s the only black African country which went back to its roots and built upon its own indigenous institutions.”
James Shikwati underscores the nature of trade in Africa’s pre-colonial period in contrast to assumptions that it did not exist. He has frequently appealed to this history in the debate over aid-centric development approaches.
None paint a picture of an undisturbed nirvana prior to Africa encountering the rest of the world; engagement was already underway long before the making of the continent’s current borders. They do show that the development of institutions is compatible with rigorous benchmarks for governance and liberty. It has often been a rallying cry for liberty itself in Africa by its leaders seeking freedom from colonial yolk.
To borrow a phrase, Botswana's tribal councils became “little platoons,” a defense against the state characterized by limited government, as opposed to extensions of it through the purchase of loyalty in the Marxist African states that knew no limit. While the state enriched many African leaders who continued the plunder of their colonial predecessors, Botswanan President Festus Mogae would be seen going about in public doing his own shopping.
Scholarship and leadership do matter
Though many often assume that development and democracy can be exported to varying degrees, it is interesting that in the areas least prioritized some of the greatest successes have occurred. Singapore, despite military colonial rule and the dim view its executioners had of its future, is today second only to Hong Kong in the list of the world’s most economically free countries. For what it is worth, many fleeing Loyalists believed chaos would ensue after American Independence in the thirteen former colonies; the rest is history.
Ideas among leaders and the public are perhaps the most undervalued component in so much of the work on development. The right ideas at decisive points have altered the course of nations, and sound leadership from humble statesmen matters, even if we rightly ascribe less hope in government’s ability to do more than create an enabling environment for human flourishing. Good institutions emerge for a reason.
As African proponents of liberty gathered together at the annual Africa Liberty Forum this August in Lagos, reflection on these ideas and their development in Africa constitute a worthy source of scholarship for freedom champions. Reflection can deepen the valiant efforts for liberty in the countries these freedom champions love so dearly.
As one activist recently said of his South American home during a speech in the United States, “I never wanted a new country to live in, I want a new Brazil.”
I believe reflections on the threads of a liberal tradition in Africa over the past century can point to and inspire fellow Africans in the direction of the ordered liberty that they seek; one underpinned by sound reason, reflection, and confidence.