Monday, October 01, 2012

Is poverty a choice African leaders have made for their people?

Children, Africa, Poverty
Poverty is a choice Africa has taken and will remain so as long as the mindset of our leaders remain the same, i.e. putting self-preservation above the people’s interests. That these leaders have managed to get away with it, is testimony to the apathy of the African people...

I recently read a book titled: Why Africa is poor – and what Africans can do about it by Greg Mills, a white South African with a lot of experience working in Africa. Mr Mills argues, quite convincingly, that sub-Saharan Africa has remained poor because its leaders have opted for actions leading to poverty while their counterparts in Asia chose the high road to wealth creation.

As a result, over 50 years after gaining independence, many African countries are worse off in real terms than they were in 1960 while under colonialism. Sub- Saharan Africa’s share of global trade has for instance shrunk from 4 per cent in 1960 to 2 per cent in 2010; 1 per cent of which is contributed by South Africa alone. The credit for ‘lone ranger’, South Africa, ironically goes to the industriousness of the apartheid regime but also to wisdom of the post apartheid governments not to tamper with the economic apparatus set up by the racist regime. In neighbouring Zimbabwe it was a different story. Robert Mugabe’s land-grab, which sent the white farmers packing, turned a prosperous bread basket of Southern Africa to a poor and hungry nation.

As Comrade Mugabe must have learnt by now, farming takes more than being a fanatical supporter of the ruling party. While Asian countries put emphasis on economic development and uplifting the living standards of their people, post-colonial African leaders had their accent on politics and self- preservation of the regimes in power, with little regard to the welfare of their people.

Africa remained a producer of a limited range of primary commodities, whose prices have plummeted over the years. Asian countries on the other hand embarked on industrialisation; successfully competing with and even beating their former colonial masters at their own game. Many Western countries are now relocating their manufacturing outfits to Asia, to take advantage of the skilled labour force and the lower costs of production. Some Asian countries like Singapore and Malaysia got their act together right from independence and have experienced astronomical growth for over 50 years.

Others like Vietnam did so after a devastating 15 year-war with the United States. When the guns fell silent, Vietnam embarked on economic development which has turned Vietnam into a leading exporter of coffee, fish, rice and a variety of manufactured goods. Their former enemy, the US, is now their major trading partner.

Greg Mills attributes the rise and rise of Asia to leaders making the right choices about development and sticking to them. Asian leaders laid emphasis on investment in food production to meet domestic demand and for export, on health, education and skills development; attracting Foreign Direct Investment and taking full advantage of globalisation and trade liberation.

This ensured that the people were well fed, healthy and got the skills and training to produce quality goods that consumers want and at competitive prices. By making the right choices, Asian countries escaped the poverty trap that has bedevilled Africa to this day. In spite of its vast agricultural potential, 32 of 48 sub-Saharan countries are dependent on food aid from donor countries. It is estimated that 40 per cent of the arable land in Africa is not under cultivation and yet Africa has received external aid to the tune of $560 billion in the last 50 years!

African leaders failed to prioritise agriculture, a sector that employs 70 per cent of the population but receives on average less than 8 per cent of the budget allocations in most countries. It is also the sector which could turn Africa into the largest exporter of food if it received appropriate investment. The medical services in most countries have collapsed, leaving especially the rural population chronically in bad health. Education is also in shambles. It is no wonder that globalisation has largely by-passed Africa. North Africa on the other hand has done much better.

Even oil producing countries in sub-Saharan Africa have not been spared the scourge of poor choices. Nigeria for instance has earned a total of $400 billion in 40 years of oil exportation but has little to show for it. It is estimated that only 1 per cent of Nigeria’s 138 million people have actually benefited from oil. Nigeria abandoned agriculture when it discovered oil. Oil now accounts for 98 per cent of the export revenue.

According to some estimates, if Nigeria had not discovered oil it would be 25 per cent richer than it is now. Countries like Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, Angola, etc have had similar experiences to Nigeria as a result of the oil economy. Uganda could go the same way if it does not learn from the experience of Nigeria and others.

Poverty is a choice Africa has taken and will remain so as long as the mindset of our leaders remain the same, i.e. putting self-preservation above the people’s interests. That these leaders have managed to get away with it, is testimony to the apathy of the African people and their willingness to be led badly and into deeper poverty.

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