World Bank President Robert Zoellick was in town this week.
During his tour he visited Tilda Rice Scheme and Malaba border post, where Uganda and Kenya have created a one-stop customs post which is expected to drastically reduce transit time through the border.
I could not help but wonder about what Zoellick was thinking as I watched footage of his trip.
What would Zoellick have seen on his whistle stop trip of our country?
For a country whose statistics make for painful reading, he might be surprised at the friendly, open , hopeful Ugandan faces. Even if we are in the throes of drought he would have caught his breath at the greenery and marvel at how close to nature we live.
However, the investment banker in him – he was once a Manging Director at investment house Goldman Sachs, would not fail to notice some disturbing signs. The unlit, single lane road from the airport would have alerted him to the inadequacy of the transport infrastructure. He flew over much of eastern Uganda in a helicopter and it could not have escaped him that the presence of commercial agricultural projects were few and far between. And on his way out he met President Yoweri Museveni at the palatial State house in Entebbe and must have wondered about the country’s resource allocation priorities.
“We need to show success, we need to show results and effectiveness in improved governance,” were his parting words.
During much of the cold war, the World Bank suffered a lot of bad press for promoting economic policies that emphasized economic growth while paying little notice to development or the distribution of the fruits of that growth.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Bank has got better press partly because, they were seen as the champions of the ‘winning’ free market ideology, more and more recipient countries claimed ownership of the prescribed policies and also because they paid more attention to the softer issues of environment, education and health services.
Zoellick would be in his element if countries were run like companies. He would look at the financials of a country, would determine whether it was in profit or not. He would flip to the balance sheet and uncover whether the company was healthy or technically insolvent.
His advice then would be to activate dormant assets or add new assets thus increase income. He would also counsel a slashing of expenditures that do not help the bottom line, with the savings shifted to buying more assets which would increase income further – a virtuous cycle, and voila we would have a working enterprise again.
If only life were so easy. Unfortunately countries cannot be run like companies. Local and international politics cloud priorities, compromise execution and provide fertile ground to corruption.
It is with this in mind that one would not be amiss to say the Bank’s success on the continent has been spotty at best and unsustainable at worst.
Where success would be measured by markedly improved living standards for the people of the recipient countries.
The Bank, which was created initially to reconstruct countries ravaged by World War II and also added lifting countries out of poverty as one of it mandates, is desperate for some winners.
But you have to feel for Zoellick and co., the Bank is trying to achieve what has not been achieved in the history of development; to, through external help, lift poor countries into the league of developed countries.
It might not be fair to say that in its 65-year history it has nothing to show for its efforts on the scale of a Singapore, South Korea or Taiwan – countries which were economic back waters at the end of the Second World War but are now classed as middle-income countries, but clearly there is something not quite right with the strategy and the more conscientious members of the Bank must feel it.
Our own country serves as an example of how external aid props up an corrupt urban elite and tends to aggravate more than alleviate rural poverty.
For sustainable growth and development countries like Uganda need to be pushed primarily towards improving local resource mobilization to finance its own development projects. It is more than a passing coincidence that countries that mobilise resources locally have better governance records than donor dependant economies.
Then maybe Zoellick would not be flying back to Washington with his chin in his palms wondering where did all the billions go?
Published August 2009, New Vision