Updated: Jul 21, 2020
Botswana is one of the only African countries to have capitalized on its natural resource wealth, meaning Botswana’s keys to success may provide valuable lessons for the other struggling nations on the continent.
Some countries have been able to break the "resource curse." One of those countries is Botswana, which despite its success in dealing with its natural resources, also has a wide array of internal issues. It is experiencing 22-25% unemployment, a slow growth in sectors other than mining, a ravaging AIDS epidemic -2nd highest rate of adult HIV prevalence- as well as human rights abuses, like the displacement of the San people in order to make space for the tourism and diamond industry. For the sake of argument however, we will focus on Botswana’s success in dealing with their own natural resource wealth, which they managed to successfully redistribute to the population through extensive investment in public works and social services.
Botswana was probably one of the least promising African countries when it gained independence from the UK in the 1960’s. The country was the size of France and had only 12km of paved road. It was also very rich in diamonds and other natural resources. Realistically, by following the trends of other African countries with the same predispositions, Botswana would seem to be set up for failure. However, Botswana now rocks one the highest HDI scores in Africa- using HDI as a measure of a country’s development instead of GDP per capita is crucial, as extremely corrupt countries such as Equatorial Guinea has the 2nd highest African GDP per capita, but ranks 15th in terms of HDI Africa-wide. So, the question is: what did Botswana do differently?
Botswana's success is due to good governance. This may sound like a very simplistic approach of things, but it is indeed the reality. The two post-independence Botswana presidents -Seretse Khama and Ketumile Masire- valued social welfare more than personal enrichment and their integrity trickled down to other members of their respective cabinets, which in turn trickled down to the country’s bureaucrats, finally becoming a fundamental value among the Botswanan population. Botswana currently ranks 34th globally on the Transparency Index, higher even than countries such as Israel and Spain. This means that government spending is transparent and citizens know where their tax money, as well as commodity export revenue (the money the government gets from the country’s natural resources), goes. Furthermore, although the government still censors some news, journalists are generally able to report on the news freely. Transparency and a decent freedom of the press are basic tenets for the establishment of democratic institutions.
Furthermore, Botswana used its natural resource wealth wisely: they heavily invested in their country’s population and its future, not in finite, futureless ressources. The country’s investment in education- 25% of total public expenditures- is substantial and productive. The youth literacy rate is at 97.8%, the adult literacy rate is around 88% and 91.36% of Botswanan children are enrolled in primary school. The health system is fairly performant, and access to health facilities is higher than many other places in Africa. Indeed, according to the WHO (World Health Organization), 96% of the urban population lives within 8 km of a health facility. A healthy, educated population is not enough for a country to function well. Venezuela’s population was also highly educated and healthy because of Chavist social programs. The one thing Venezuela was lacking, and that Botswana has, is transparency. Now, a healthy, educated, and informed population provides the basis for the creation and maintenance of solid democratic institutions.
The way Botswana dealt with foreign companies who wanted to exploit their natural resources should be an example for other resource rich African countries. They were faced with a couple of premises. First, it is necessary for foreign, wealthy companies to have some control over resource use. Indeed, they have the capital to explore, develop and make natural resource production more lucrative. Prohibiting that would lead to an under-exploitation of the country’s natural resources, as in Venezuela. However, state control is also needed in order to regulate the companies’ actions, and protect the rights of their workers, as well as provide a safeguard for the government’s ownership of those resources. Giving foreign companies “carte blanche” has lead to many ethical problems, particularly for employees, that arise from unrestrained, profit motivations. Botswana's solution to this issue came in the form of a “public-private partnership”. This mechanism works in the following way: the government and private companies work hand in hand, instead of competing. The government guarantees that the private company operates in a stable and secure environment. In exchange, the government gets a large cut of the profits as well as a decision-making role on the company’s board. One example of this mechanism is “Debswana,” a public-private ownership between the Botswana government and DeBeers, a diamond company. DeBeers subsidizes antiretroviral medicine for its workers, which makes them not only more efficient workers but also healthier human beings. This system allows for not only the presence of a wealthy foreign company able of rapidly developing the country’s diamond sector, but it also benefits the government both financially and socially by promoting pro-social business practices that enrich the surrounding communities.
Building off of the Botswana case study, let’s see what policies should be applied to other African countries in order to achieve the same success. One thing is clear: Botswana got lucky by having two genuinely good presidents, who strived to make improvements in the citizens’ lives. In this regard, other African countries are off to a bad start. Apart from a couple of exceptions, most African countries are ruled by politicians motivated more by personal enrichment than by their country’s development. Telling those countries to magically become democratic and elect benevolent rulers would be ridiculously unrealistic. We thus have to accept that most of those countries’ governments are corrupt, and we must therefore find solutions to change them from the inside out. And the fastest, most effective way to achieve that sort of values shift, is through education.
Educating the population about the resources that the country disposes of, as well as how that wealth is utilized is essential. This goes hand in hand with transparency. Citizens should be aware of what type of resources they have, how they are exploited and where, as well as the economic volatility of the said resource. As Paul Collier, director of the study of African economics at Oxford College, states: “There's no substitute for building a critical mass of informed citizens," he said. "It doesn't have to be everybody -- sometimes just 10,000 people, but it doesn't mean just get a good finance minister -- it has to be a bigger group than one or two technocrats.” An educated mass will be more aware of the country’s situation, leading to social uprisings demanding a better management of natural resources. This will lead to more social awareness, which in turn will grow the pressure on the government to make changes in areas such as transparency. Transparency drastically cuts corruption, which in turn leads to better political governance and an increase in overall human development.
To conclude, I believe that there is hope for resource rich African countries, even though there remains a lot to be done. Advising African countries to miraculously become democratic is utopian fantasy, and frankly impossible. Instead, those countries should work with the government they have right now to reform it from the inside. A better “resource” educated population will lead to demands for transparency, which in turn will lead to both a decrease in corruption and an increase in social program investment. Furthermore, the government should have smart and beneficial relationships with rich, foreign companies to reap the benefits of privatization- like rapid industrial development and increased revenue streams- while keeping a hands on approach to prevent human and environmental abuses. Additionally, an educated and healthy population, combined with transparent governance will lead to a more stable economy as the youth will be trained in more jobs and thus able to diversify the economy. Countries following those reforms have the potential to increase its citizens’ human development index, which in turn will put the country in a better position to install and strengthen solid democratic institutions for sustained and stable growth.
By Timothy Motte
Having been lucky to travel around the world, I cultivated a passion for how the world works and how countries with divergent interests cooperate, or not. Having moved to the US from France 5 years ago, I speak French, English and am actively pursuing Chinese and Spanish. I wish to pursue a career in diplomacy, political consulting or geopolitical analysis.