Botswana’s development model: A case for African Classical Liberal Tradition (1)

During a recent visit to Washington D.C., I briefed several foundations, members of Congress and think tanks: South Africa and Zimbabwe’s challenges have recently come to the fore, in light of eroding property rights and election issues respectively.

Amidst the challenges to the open society, lessons to improve Africa can come from within the continent. For South Africa and Zimbabwe, Botswana a neighbour that beat the odds, showing solutions are often far closer to home than assumed.

What accounts for the relative success of this landlocked fellow African state, which relegated to likely failure in the view of some colonial officials, arose from one of the three poorest nations in the world at independence, to peer age with upper middle-income countries today? Scott Beaulier at Mercatus is perhaps the better known in assessing the issue, disproving several developments 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 – both 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 revealed vibrant commercial institutions, high degrees of professionalism virtually everywhere, public safety, alongside both familiar and new big brands on the streets of the capital, Gaborone.

It is not an uncommon observation. 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, a former Cato Fellow and leader of South Africa’s opposition, Tony Leon, demonstrated 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 1960. However, when adjusted for inflation and purchasing power parity, Botswana’s per capita income 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 fell on 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 gave rise to 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 was a temptation too strong to give up for leaders in post-colonial 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 grass-roots upwards. Robert Subrick together with Beaulier point out 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 town hall meetings were notably democratic. Whereas the House of Lords evolved in the British tradition of liberty, so the concept evolved in Botswana to a House of Chiefs, providing a counter balance 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 defies the “soft bigotry of low expectations” that characterized engagement with the continent by some with an excessive reliance on aid. The more we delve into the country’s evolution, 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 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 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 1960s, 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 10 years of independence. Problems, such as poverty, remain a matter or critically importance, but, comparatively, the rates are at a much lower level than elsewhere in Africa and today some worry the brakes are being place 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 remains the essence of success (The Venezuelan tragedy began with years of commodity-driven growth, while lacking sound institutions). Secondly, ideas matter and how they are developed do too. This is why think tanks and entrepreneurs are championing freedom.

To be continued…

  • Garreth Bloor is Vice President for Transatlantic Affairs to the IRR, South Africa’s oldest classical liberal think tank. He is also a member of the Atlas Network