The past week has been a very bad one for our country. Yet again, the results of form five (5) students were released and, unfortunately, the emerging picture for the republic is one of a bleak future. Related to this was a conference that I attended in Gaborone last week where the topic for discussion was on talent management in the SADC region. The massage from the seminar was simple and very clear: the future belongs to those nations which invest in its people. In this instalment I revisit the debate on the efficacy of the market over governments in the economy. Specifically, I draw attention to our political principals to consider bringing back the state to complement the market for the sake of our national development.
I am not going to comment a lot on the recent past form 5 results. They are as worse as anything you can think of; But how did we find ourselves where we are? For those who have not had the opportunity to visit our schools lately, especially public ones, the context in which learning is supposed to take place leaves a lot desired for. I recently checked into one Gaborone government school. The school is beyond recognition; buildings are dilapidated, windows are broken, classrooms have developed potholes, bathroom resembles pigpens, to mentioned but a few. I was left wondering how teaching could happen under those challenging circumstances. And remember, I haven’t even mention the historic low levels of morale afflicting teachers and their principals. We are indeed a nation in crisis.
To be fair, the latest uninspiring form 5 results talk to bigger problems visiting our republic since the late 1990s. Prior to that, Botswana was on course to be a successful case of development in an otherwise failed continent. Everything was going great for us in the socio-economic and political sphere. Diamonds were largely at the centre of this new found success. But diamonds alone could not translate into a thriving economy we enjoyed.
Instead, a combination of luck and visionary leadership better accounted for our achievements. Investments into various sectors of the economy were prioritised. Education, health and infrastructural development were identified as crucial to effect development. They were the foundation needed to move the country forward. And in here the state played a pronounced role in the economy. It was a facilitator for our prosperity.
The end of the 1990s brought a significant shift in the policy front. For the first time in our short history, for instance, the Vice President could not assume the twin responsibility of also heading the Ministry of Finance and Developing Planning. Technically, the premier ministry in Gaborone lost the clout it enjoyed in previous years. The effect of such loss of status meant that development and planning were no longer the policy drive amongst our political principals. Suddenly, neo-liberal chants of privatisation and liberalisation became the new mantra amongst our leaders. The market or private sector was touted as the engine of growth for the economy.
Subsequent policies, in turn, focused on achieving these objectives thereby relegating role of government to the periphery.
I have no problem with the market. But we need to be careful, particularly for us in developing countries; the centrality of the state in development cannot be overemphasised. In the context of Botswana, the role of government was pronounced largely because the private sector was almost non-existent. This is still the case, but government has absolved itself from crucial responsibilities such as provision of quality health, education and, lately, infrastructural development. We are being told that the state is effectively an impediment to development.
The neglect by government of its responsibilities has tempted me to disagree with the dominant thinking influencing our contemporary political leaders. When government was still driven by the development and planning principles, it invested a lot in ensuring that citizens received the best possible service. And to be fair to our government, a lot was achieved in uplifting many Batswana’s lives. The state played its part in a meaningful way.
The reality now is that those who can pay are the ones getting better services. I don’t need to remind readers that to access better education one just has to enrol his/her kids with so called English medium schools. The same would apply with health. Marina hospital is now the final place to visit after one has exhausted available monies either on GPH or Bokamoso. And the contrast between the two is disturbing. Government facilities, as indicated above, tells a story of challenges associated with dominant thinking of markets and governments as separate and exclusionary entities. The received wisdom of the incompatibility of the two, sadly, has resulted with growing disparity in terms of service delivery between private and public-owned institutions. And the poor in particular are the ones paying a heavy price for the policy shift. A visit to Marina, for instance, is becoming more of a farewell to the loves ones into the next world. Equally, enrolment into government schools is fast becoming a sure way into Ipelegeng. Quality service is not a priority for government.
And this exclusionary thinking between the private and public has crippled a lot of countries.
Sadly, we have fallen into the same trap. The painful truth is that successful economies, especially the emerging economies of the east are embracing both the state and market as necessary for effecting socio-economic development. The role of the state remains pronounced as a facilitator or investor given the prevailing circumstances. The important thing has been that governments in those countries remain a key player in their economies. They have not bought into the exclusionary and imaginary distinction between public and private.
This is the lesson we should learn as a country in need of resuscitation. Otherwise pursuit of the private at the expanse of public will mean greater suffering for majority of our people who reside in rural areas. And in the process, talent which needed to be unearthed, nurtured and developed is not realised. The consequences for not doing so are too much for this country to afford.