Saturday, September 26, 2020

Botswana academics playing marbles as the country burns

In a series of articles I wrote in this newspaper last year, I had intended, among other things, to show how academics can manage, whatever the subject, to remain objective and write in a way that an article is built on a foundation of scholarship.
Although academics such as me would do well to keep at the frontiers of their specialization, they must, as a leading trade scholar urges, also venture into the province where policy is made and participate so that policy is improved.

But this moral observation is open to challenge by the defenders of orthodoxy and conservatism.
It is not difficult to see why. The American intellectual, Noam Chomsky, has exposed the hidden truth that a large amount of scholarship is clerical work. This implies that most of us do not wish to stray from a path already known to us, lest we discover the truth. Therefore, we take comfort in routine work, wrapped up in the language of research and analysis, but we really serve interests that can be deconstructed from our arguments. Instead of thrusting away all private aims and devoting ourselves unflinchingly to the vigorous search for truth, we are preoccupied with pleasing those with the most power and prestige in society.
But then again, not to conform to them means to distance oneself from the group and its dominant values, and possibly to become an outsider.
Let me illustrate what I mean when I say we are passive.

We are in a democracy but we tend to leave things to the government. Consider the new policy by a reputable financial institution, which extends special and preferential treatment to one section of our society, purely on grounds of religious belief. Imagine that others (Barclays, Standard Chartered, Botswana Building Society, NDB, CEDA, etc) were to do the same, as a reaction, and purely on a competitive basis.

The outcome would be a systemic infection, throwing business into chaos. There are other grounds for objection: the policy is unjust toward the rest of the bank?s customers (believers and non-believers alike); it is discriminatory and unconstitutional. But, alas, we have not even heard as much as a whimper from academics. We are all waiting for governmental intervention.

Let us take another illustration. There is the argument that we would be better off leaving SACU, and that we are ?being dragged down by the inefficiencies within the customs union?, by (allegedly) Mr. Nicholas Czypionka, of the Business and Economic Advisory Council (Sunday Standard Feb 11-17, 2007). The reader will have noticed that I have placed some words in quotation marks. This is done to highlight the newspaper?s verbatim account, and I do not mean to attach any weight to the words quoted.

I share Czypionka?s sentiments on the disadvantages of SACU. Although the customs union has allowed Botswana, Namibia, Lesotho, and Swaziland (BNLS) to benefit from zero tariffs with their main trading partner, South Africa has acted primarily in its commercial interests. For instance, it has used various techniques (e.g. trade policy, complex rules of origin, infant industry protection, and more), to stifle BNLS exports abroad; it has restricted overseas imports into SACU, causing these countries to suffer a diversion of demand from competitive goods to its more pricey goods.

In addition, South Africa is ambivalent about regional economic integration, as shown by the Trade, Development and Cooperation Agreement concluded between it and the European Union in 1999, to the exclusion of its SACU partners.
But there are advantages, too (I shall enumerate these in my next piece), in the context of SACU?s revised terms, thanks largely to the active role played by our government.

Of course, I am at one with Czypionka as regards the inefficiencies of regional integration initiatives. In fact, some stem from comments by the Head of the EU Delegation, Mr. Paul Malin, on integration timelines (Sunday Standard Feb 25 – March 3, 2007). I cannot repeat them in this framework.

Moreover, it would be somewhat audacious of me to attempt to cut out the vast tangle of international economic theory and write its rules and principles on the head of a pin. It is enough to say, though, that integration processes face difficult challenges as correctly explained by Malin, not least, a ?spaghetti bowl? of overlap and multiple memberships, the overall effects of which are trade policy conflicts, contortion of trade flows, institutional and functional duplication, all of which add negatively to the longer term predictability and stability of the trading system.

Where Czypionka and this writer part ways is that we should opt out of SACU. What we must always bear in mind is that domestic businesses whose country has not entered into, or has left, a regional trade bloc may find it disadvantageous to compete with outside businesses that can export their goods on preferential terms to countries with which their governments have formalized regional trade agreements.

Secondly, I think Czypionka damns history and tries to wipe out the past with a single stroke. He also wants us to throw out the baby with the bathwater. What?s more, some would argue that there is a kind of arrogance in Czypionka?s suggestion.

We share a difficult past with South Africa; we have contributed to its economic development; we must not be shortsighted, or cynical. I am not unmindful Mauritius has gone it alone. But it is a unique case, and there is no analogy. While I greatly admire Czypionka?s talent, I wish it were employed in a better cause, say, in academia. Most of us would benefit from his wisdom, albeit, in my poor opinion, policymakers would be left none the wiser. The main point, though, is that integration will suffer because only a few, Czypionka, Malin, Tebogo B Seleka (all non-academics), are prepared to enter the fray and fearlessly engage the issues, while academics argue about party conferences.

What is my contribution?

I have already referred to the new SACU as a manifestation of our government?s commitment to integration at the regional and multilateral levels. In this, the government has my support, unreservedly.
I do not think that the opposite, autarky, is a viable option. Nevertheless, I am concerned about Parliament?s default to ratify international trade treaties as this impacts adversely on trade policy.

International treaties such as the WTO and SACU are not self-executing. Recent judicial pronouncements, e.g. Kenneth Good v Attorney General, have put beyond doubt that an international treaty does not confer enforceable rights on individuals (NGOs, companies, trusts, and so on) within the country, until Parliament has legislated its provisions into the law of the land.
Because the WTO and SACU directly impact on the degree to which individuals, business, etc, have access to the courts to challenge governmental or other institutional actions that are allegedly inconsistent with our international trade obligations, (e.g. tariffs, quantitative restrictions, dumping, intellectual property, competition policy), an enabling law is necessary.

Why is economic integration moving at a snail?s pace?

Part of the blame must be laid at Parliament?s door. Its failure to enact a law equals a lack of support to the Minister of Trade and Industry.

The South African Parliament, for example, has since passed the International Trade Administration Act to implement SACU 2002, the WTO, and other trade treaties, and, consequently, its private sector can now compete globally. When should we expect our parliamentarians to do the same thing?

Is it not essential to have institutional measures required to promote international economic policy? Is it not timely to set up, as SACU enjoins us, an autonomous, expert driven International Trade Administration Commission with authority to regulate international trade?
What do you think?

*Michael Mothobi is a lecturer at the University of Botswana, and can be contacted at [email protected]

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