A fortnight ago South African minister Trevor Manuel was in town as a guest of the central bank.
He was the guest speaker at the Joseph Mubiru Memorial lecture and the subject of his speech was, “Unlocking Africa’s growth potential—Aligning decision making to implementation and delivery”.
Manuel is well suited to speak on the subject because at its center are the dual questions of how do you grow economies and if you can manage that, how do you distribute the spoils equitably? These questions vexed him for the 13 years he served as South Africa’s finance minister and continue to do so now that he is the minister of his country’s National Planning Commission.
Resolving the two related challenges not only requires an understanding but also a firm grounding in the politics of the economies one is looking at.
Amazing as it sounds but what makes the difference between the standard of living of one population as compared to another is the imaginary boundaries drawn in the ground that divide nations.
These boundaries are political constructs, which become very real in that they determine where one government or the others influence starts and ends.
It is the difference between whether there is regular mobile telephony in Bundibugyo versus eastern Congo; or whether there is loadshedding in Busia in Uganda or Busia in Kenya or whether the Katuna in Uganda is littered with plastic paper bags or not as is the case on the Rwanda side of Katuna.
For a long time now donor agencies have gone about their business dispensing with economic prescriptions while claiming not to want to acknowledge the politics of the recipient nations.
The reason for this also is that the economists advising our governments by ignoring the political nuances of nations they are dealing with have often cut-and-pasted one prescription of one nation on another, with disastrous consequences.
The result of course has been that if you put all these billions of dollars in aid to a pure economic cost benefit analysis the results have fallen far short of any acceptable measure.
So a person like Manuel is a good guy to listen to.
Whereas his subject seemed like an economic challenge the theme running through his talk was the need for Africa to get its politics together if it is to live up to its full potential as an economic powerhouse.
As it stands now we are 50-odd countries, most of them unviable as standalone economies and all trying to jostle for position in the international arena.
Manuel suggests that the issue of sovereignty should be looked at again, as it is delivering little to nothing to improving the welfare of the continent’s multitudes, which is what politics is supposed to do.
Economically this makes sense.
But to unravel the patch work of interests by the various political elitists will take another kind of skill than calculus and econometrics.
As Libya’s former President Muammar Gadaffi learnt to his detriment. While understanding the necessity for a United States of Africa, Gadaffi clearly had not factored in the continents politics or thought he could just could just roll over them by force of will.
Manuel recognized the East African Community as being ahead of other regional blocks in its integration. It may help that there are enough people among our country’s political elite who benefitted as ordinary people from the original community, so it is not an abstract concept.
I think the starting point to forging a unified Africa is to improve the movement of people, goods and services around the continent, hence a need for cross border infrastructure investments.
Our colonial history means that our entire infrastructure is aimed at the nearest port within the former colony and beyond that we don’t have a very serious web of infrastructure to facilitate inter regional travel. Which explains why it easier to get to Mombasa through former British colony Kenya than it is from Kampala to Kisangani.
This essentially perpetuates the division between Britain and Belgium and has no place on our continent.
The reason this circus has continued decades after independence is because it serves our political elite to keep the continent fragmented, after all they do not share in our poverty hence no urgency to generate economic growth for all.
Once the infrastructure is place people move, trade ensues and there begins a mutual benefit for either party to remain stable at least and prosper at best.
But before all that takes place we have to paper over delicate egos and parochial interests while important are irrelevant to the greater good.
In the absence of the cold war ideological divide so we need to look again at our development experts and whether they are the best placed to advance the cause.
To paraphrase Bill Clinton, “It’s the political economy, stupid!”