Fifty years down the line, citizen economic empowerment still remains largely elusive

29 Jun 2018

Instead of enjoying watching the ongoing Russia 2018 World Cup, the folks at my rural village of Moroka in the North East District over the weekend bombarded me with the difficult yet interesting questions of whether after more than 50 years of independence Botswana has done enough in terms of citizen economic empowerment, especially indigenous citizen economic empowerment.

Lost in the wilderness momentarily for an answer which the folks had just challenged me to provide, especially coming from an unexpected quarter, I faintly recalled that in the late 1990s the Botswana Confederation of Commerce, Industry and Manpower (BOCCIM) which currently plies in the name of Business Botswana spearheaded a heated debate on the issue of citizen economic empowerment.

At the BOCCIM National Business Conference held in Francistown in 1998, Monty Chiepe and Mogolori Modise hit hard on government’s lacklustre attitude in tackling the issue with the verve it deserved, decrying that the few efforts were fragmented and not sufficiently crafted to economically empower indigenous citizens since the few existing empowerment programmes were haphazardly implemented, without proper mentoring as well as monitoring.

Joining the chorus was the country economic think tank, Botswana Institute for Development and Policy Analysis (BIDPA) which through a 1999 working paper authored by the late Dr Abdalla Gergis on citizen economic empowerment underscored that the fundamental goal of empowerment is to help individuals within the society to improve the quality of their own lives and share equitably in the benefits of economic growth.

He observed that growth that depended on constant infusions or subsidized financing from government or other donors was inherently unsustainable. His perspective of empowerment centered on the concept of helping people to unleash their creative and productive energies to achieve sustainable growth and continuous improvement in their living standards.

More generally, empowerment means engaging the relevant stakeholders in a given process by applying the principles of inclusiveness, transparency and accountability. As such, the empowerment concept goes beyond the notions of democracy, human rights and participation, to include enabling people to understand the reality of their environment (social, economic, political, ecological and cultural) and to take necessary actions to improve their well being.

To empower means either to strengthen one’s belief in his (her) self efficacy or to weaken one’s belief in personal powerlessness. Therefore, any real empowerment must be “self-empowerment”. There must be an internal urge to influence and control. People are empowered when they feel an enhancement of their abilities to control, influence or cope with their social or economic roles according to Dr Gergis.

In terms of the steps required to achieve a personal goal, empowerment might mean consultation with the person or the community in the identification of needs, and over the choice of options. Everything else is done on behalf of the ‘empowered’ person by other professional people. This kind of approach to empowerment attracts the critique of tokenism. Such an approach fails to recognise that as long as others who have access to resources control the process, then the process is disempowering, lamented Dr Gergis in his working paper.

His view is that empowerment is supposed to bring closer those who hold power and those who are powerless. Empowerment moves the powerless into positions of power and makes those at higher levels of power accept sharing power with them.

“Because empowerment lies at the centre of power relations, it presents a challenge to holder of power. Faced with this challenge, the power-holders tend to dress it in a way that will diminish its threatening implications. For those who hold power, the fear of losing power reduces empowerment to mean the management of power,” emphasised Dr Gergis.

Where does the social to the debacle lie? In Dr Gergis’ analysis, it lies in education and training as fundamental tools of empowerment. They provide the poor and the disadvantaged with the means to increase their productivity and income earning power.

Education and training can enhance the bargaining power of the poor; foster assertiveness and self-confidence; promote greater awareness of legal and social rights; improve access to and use of economic resources such as jobs, land, credit and information.

However, formal education as it is currently planned and practiced does not enable and enhance the capabilities of the poor as much as it might. Rather, it is a shay vehicle for the structural changes in the socio-economic and political environments that are crucial in enabling poor citizens to participate in their own development.

Education and training policies must be geared towards transformation and structural adjustments of the economy. Non-formal education, vocational training, on the job training and other educational derivatives should be advanced as the vehicles that enable people to develop skills and capacities, which increase their control over decisions, resources and structures affecting their lives.

In this way, education creates conditions for full and equal participation of people in discussions and decisions, and at the same time empowering all people to act for change – to see themselves as creators of culture, history and an alternative social vision.

Education and training must be adaptive to the process of globalisation. Education and training goals must be redefined to promote creativity and competitiveness. The education and training system should be forward looking and should ensure a closer match between learning which goes on in the classroom and exigencies of rural and urban livelihoods.

A shift needs to take place: in approach, from teaching to learning; in the parameters of learning, from the confines of the classrooms or training centre to the elements of socio-cultural, political, and environmental contexts; and in method, from responsive (worse, or passive) to provocative and participatory.

“To date, the majority of citizens in Botswana have not had the opportunity to acquire business skills in the selection of investments, nor do they have access to credit that would enable them to participate in equity investment or use borrowed money to start or expand their own business. In these circumstances, some education or training on sound business practices is needed. For example, more education emphasis could be given to develop and expand the scope of business subjects in secondary schools as recommended in the SMME policy paper.

“Such schemes require high standards and will not encourage a culture of entitlements and dependency on the State. Entrepreneurial initiatives must be promoted, keeping in mind that entrepreneurial skills can only thrive in a competitive, not protective environment. In this regard, private sector companies should be induced to play a more active role in empowering Batswana, especially through training. Citizen Empowerment should be the business of every Motswana, not just Government institutions,” emphasised Dr Gergis in the working paper.

Defining citizen economic empowerment in the Botswana context, Dr Gergis highlighted it is a socioeconomic process through which Batswana are motivated to enhance their belief in self-efficacy, to improve their abilities to control their own resources, and to unleash their creative and productive energies to achieve sustainable improvement in their living standards. This will be achieved by improving citizens’ technical skills, their knowledge and their abilities to adopt modern business techniques.

He however warned sternly that international experience suggests that entitlements (hand-outs) do not breed economic empowerment. Entitlements create a dependency attitude, undermine the power of positive thinking of one’s own ability and nurture the feeling of helplessness and being disempowered.

In conclusion Dr Gergis advised that government cannot and should not impose empowerment from above. Empowerment has to be an objective the individual must strive to achieve. In the same vein government can (and should) ensure equal access to economic access, but is also up to each citizen to achieve advantage of the opportunities or ignore them at his or her own peril.

“Grabbing hands for too long creates dependency and kills the drive to do things on one’s own. It must be recognised, however, that equal opportunities cannot be guaranteed because people respond differently to same incentives,” concluded the expert.