Leadership Factor: The Political Dimensions of Africa's Economic Development

By Rotberg, Robert I. | Harvard International Review, Winter 1998 | Go to article overview

Leadership Factor: The Political Dimensions of Africa's Economic Development


Rotberg, Robert I., Harvard International Review


ROBERT I. ROTBERG is President of the World Peace Foundation and Lecturer at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

Africa's current economic and political problems can be solved only by principled and visionary leadership of a kind that is all too rare in Africa. Not only are many African countries landlocked, but they also suffer from medical diseases like malaria, trachoma, and schistosomiasis; furthermore, they suffer from human greed. Only two nations have managed to avoid the pitfall of greed in recent years: Botswana and Mauritius. The first leaders of these nations had more foresight than most of their contemporaries in Africa. Many of today's leaders share this vision, but some are unable to avoid the same kinds of traps that ensnared the less successful autocrats of an earlier era.

Success Stories

"We have always maintained a deep commitment to democratic principles and to the respect of human rights." "We have not misused Fabianism." "We kept our right of appeal to the Privy Council." These were among Prime Minister Navinchandra Ramgoolam's explanations of Mauritius' steady GDP increases of about six percent annually for twenty years, from 1975 to 1995. Prime Minister Ramgoolam, a physician and a lawyer who practiced both professions before turning to politics, made these points in a talk at Harvard in late 1998.

In Africa, since the end of colonial rule, only Botswana can be compared to Mauritius. Botswana's GDP has grown almost as consistently and rapidly, averaging eight percent annually from 1972 to 1992. Botswana started very poor in 1966 with only Britain's parting present of a large abattoir (slaughterhouse) giving any hope. The people of Botswana (now numbering about 1.6 million), were then few, devoid of natural resources, and possessing only beef cattle as a potentially commercial export crop.

It was a decade before Botswana discovered and began exploiting what became the richest source of gem diamonds in the world. The country also possessed a copper-nickel mine that never produced more than pain and trouble. But as much as the good fortune of diamonds placed Botswana suddenly on the road to rapid growth (and enabled the landlocked desert republic bordering apartheid South Africa to overcome its serious geographical handicaps), an equally important set of political decisions permitted Botswana, like Mauritius, to deliver rapid and transforming economic growth and development to its citizens.

Mauritius at least had the advantages of seaports and rapid access to the world's shipping lanes. But it, like Botswana, was originally a monoculture--an island covered by sugarcane, with hardly any value added locally to the raw sugar. In 1970 the Mauritians had the stark choice before them of continuing to rely economically on sugar or to attempt to develop manufactured exports. Like Malaysia, particularly Penang, the Mauritians very early understood the importance of creating export processing zones and of facilitating outside investment--from places like Taiwan and Singapore, and elsewhere in the East.

Mauritius imported raw cotton and made textiles for export. It made garments of all kinds and expanded from unfinished to finished and stitched goods. Mauritius has no sheep, but it became one of the world's largest exporters of woolen knitwear. These pursuits may not sound glamorous, but they formed the backbone of the entrance of a distant, rapidly expanding and diversifying isle into the global economy. Simultaneously, the government of Mauritius invested in education. Particularly by educating women, Mauritius was able to create a comparatively well-educated work force and to move productively upmarket. More importantly, by educating women, the Mauritians reduced their annual population growth rate from 4.4 percent a year--among the highest in the world--to a mere 1.2 percent, below replacement levels. Obviously, per capita GDP averages could take the fullest advantage of the island's overall growth. …

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