An African Miracle: Botswana

Botswana is one of the fastest growing economies in the world and in many ways a relatively old African success story.  I’ve heard American tourists come back saying how beautiful the country is and how the people don’t appreciate the aid worker mentality that many Western visitors come with.  In the 1970s the nascent government successfully negotiated a favorable deal with DeBeers shortly after independence when diamonds were discovered, and managed a state-regulated but highly successful and growing beef industry.  Inequality is high and HIV/AIDS is a major public health challenge, but the country has flourished economically and politically and its success disproves the theory that Africa’s violent conflicts are mineral- and resource-driven.  So how did they do it?

Abdi Ismail Samatar attributes the “miracle” in Botswana, essentially, to the presence of a small and unified dominant class and of government leadership that understood the importance of politically insulated but accountable public institutions.[1] While I find his arguments and analysis very compelling, I worry about the lack of space devoted to the problems the country faces in terms of inequality.

His analysis of the reasons why the post-independence Botswanan state was as successful as it was, despite pessimism at the time (Botswana got its independence relatively late) and the inheritance of the British colonial legacy, is based on the stance that the state has a role to play in economic development.  What was unique in Botswana, compared to many other African states, was that the government recognized the importance of efficient public institutions; was able to insulate them from particularistic interests within the government; and was able to clearly articulate their development goals and how to achieve them.[2] Also important was the level of “embedded autonomy,” where the government maintained legitimacy by seeking out the involvement of certain interests while avoiding being pressured by them;[3] a strategy which might be compared to what is known as corporatism in Asia.

Other aspects of the post-independence leadership that contributed to development were pragmatic decisions such as the slow localization of the civil service, to the ire of those who felt that it should be localized immediately.  By maintaining a merit-based system of hiring Batswana only as qualified individuals became available, and retaining outsiders to make use of their expertise in the meantime, the renegotiation of the South African Customs Union Agreement in 1969 and the negotiation of an agreement with private firms that led to the Shashe Project were led by highly skilled negotiating teams.[4] Upon the discovery of diamonds the government was able to use what leverage it had to get as favorable a deal as possible.

Other forms of state involvement included the combined effects of the Botswana Development Corporation (BDC) policies and the introduction of Financial Assistance Policy (FAP) subsidies, which led to growth in investment, establishment of infrastructure (one of the government’s first and primary goals), and employment growth.[5] The BDC’s purpose was essentially to identify good investment opportunities and then recruit investors; if it couldn’t find any, it would use its funds to establish enterprises itself.[6]

In Samatar’s analysis, the quality of the political leadership is paramount.  The Botswana Meat Commission (BMC), for example, was successful not just because of competent management, but also because it had “a clearly delineated mandate, a stable and predictable political context and administrative autonomy… This is the task of political leadership.”[7] According to Samatar, the government was able to provide this because of the ruling class’s unity and the leaders’ strength and legitimacy.

Despite all this growth and development, the spike in inequality is striking, with the Gini rising 21% between 1974-5 and 1985-6.[8] The Tribal Grazing Land Policy, borehole water schemes, and the commercialization and privatization of land and water led to increased inequality.  But through the pragmatic use of foreign aid to provide essentials such as water, health, and education,[9] and the competent management of mineral revenues which enabled the government to avoid heavily taxing the poor,[10] the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) government has been able to retain the support of the rural poor.  The management of the BDC and its mandate to ensure that the benefits of development reach the citizens of the country are other attempts to ameliorate the adverse effects of the process of “development” and economic liberalization, such as rising inequality.[11]

Samatar does not go into great detail, however, as to how these measures are able to retain the support of the rural poor.  He points to “horrific inequality,”[12] and states that the government’s provisions are enough to keep rural poor voters satisfied, but is unclear on how the two balance out.  In addition, I am not sure whether to think that inequality is a result primarily of those at the top getting richer or those at the bottom getting poorer, or a combination of the two.  The example of the BMC—where the quota of 40 cattle meant that small producers had to sell to traders, who in turn reaped the benefits of the BMC surplus at the end of the year—was useful in that it illustrated how those small producers who were disadvantaged by the quota were able to apply political pressure in  order to change the quota system of the BMC.  It would have been useful to review other examples of this nature, and in a bit more detail, to help explain how the government can remain in power despite rising inequality.

This book is a good read and does a great job outlining the factors that contributed to the relative peace and prosperity of Botswana.  I suspect Samatar’s effort to paint it as a true “miracle” is the reason there is less analysis devoted to the problems of inequality, immigration, and health.  But the dedicated scholar in him will not let him avoid the subjects altogether.  Personally, I also appreciate this book because I enjoy reading the perspectives of African scholars.  Definitely worth reading for anyone into economics and development issues.


[1] Samatar, p. 65.

[2] Samatar, pp. 81 – 82.

[3] Samatar, p. 27.

[4] Samatar, pp. 80 – 81.

[5] Samatar, p. 161.

[6] Samatar, p. 141.

[7] Samatar, p. 183.

[8] Samatar, p. 112.

[9] Samatar, pp. 73 – 74.

[10] Samatar, pp. 71 – 72.

[11] Samatar, pp. 155 – 156.

[12] Samatar, p. 73.

About Carol Jean Gallo

PhD student at Cambridge. Interested in local context and global affairs and the crossroads and misinterpretations between them.
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