As a young African who has had a fair share of scars from life’s cruel edges, I, inadvertently, find myself trying to do things in an attempt to make life better for those around me and generations to come. In this state, such questions as Which Way Now Africa? Become your lullaby, your laughter, your cry, your best enemy and your worst friend.
In my quest to find the answers, I bumped into this beautiful story.
Once upon a time, there lived an emperor who cared only about his clothes and about showing them off. One day two con men came to him and said that they could make him the finest suit of clothes from the most beautiful cloth. This cloth, they said, was very special. The cloth was invisible to the stupid and the low-born.
Being a bit nervous about whether he himself would be able to see the cloth the emperor first sent two of his trusted advisors to see this special material. There was, of course, no cloth at all, but neither would admit that they could not see it and so they praised it.
As word of this special cloth spread, all the townspeople were now interested to learn how stupid their neighbors were. The emperor then allowed himself to be dressed by the con men in his special new suit, made of this special cloth, for the procession through town. Although he knew he was naked, he never admitted it for fear that he was too unfit and stupid to see that he was wearing nothing. He too was afraid that the townspeople would think that he was stupid.
Of course, all the townspeople wildly praised the magnificent clothes of the emperor, themselves afraid to admit that they could not see the clothes, until a small child said:
“But he has nothing on!”
The child’s parents gasped and attempted to silence the child, but the child would not be silenced. As he twisted and turned, pulling his parents hands from his mouth, he continued to say, “The emperor is naked!” Soon, a few of his classmates were giggling and joined in.”
After a while adults joined their children and began to whisper, “The kids are right! The old guy has nothing on. He’s a fool and he expects us to be foolish with him.”
Soon the whisper spread from person to person until everyone in the crowd began shouting, “The emperor has no clothes.”
The emperor heard it, of course, and although he knew they were correct, that he was stark naked in front of the town, he held his head high and finished the procession. Although he knew he was naked, he never admitted it for fear that he was too unfit and stupid to see that he was wearing nothing. He too was afraid that the townspeople would think that he was stupid.”
Most industry leads in Africa are typical Emperors with no clothes, surrounded by sycophants and lead by the edge of the sword.
I attempted to analyze the national budgets for different African countries. Kenya, my own country gave me a sucker punch right on my face. In a budget of 3 Trillion ($30 Billion), half of it goes to people who are employed by the government in form of recurrent expenditure; salary, travel, flowers and office snacks. In a country of about 50 million people, civil servants are less than 1 million. 49 Million People are carrying the burdens and ‘need’ of luxury for the 1 million. One state official spends 3.7 Million ($37 Thousand) a day to fuel the cars in his motorcade.
According to UNICEF, 42% of Kenyans live below poverty line (1$). World Bank says unemployment rate in Kenya has been roughly the same figure for the past 28 years now. Yet it is not uncommon to see top executives, in government or otherwise, take home hundreds of millions on the same day their pens wipe out tens of thousands of jobs. Just cameras and smiles, they tick that as a good day at work. Dreams shattered, families broken, lives ended. But who cares! Provided theirs is okay, life goes on right? …Wrong! If we don’t change, indeed one day, the poor will have nothing else to eat but the rich.
Our schools will never admit that they are not preparing our children for the real world, credence to Your Degree is Degraded, Your University is outdated. Neither the governments nor the industry leads will ever admit to failure. They will continue toasting to their lifetime of hereditary leadership in luxurious hotels after posting rosy success stories with theoretical figures showing economic progress, employment reduction, better healthcare and advanced infrastructure.
So what is the solution?
In the words of Shanta Devarajan, we need to ‘… overcome government failure. This doesn’t necessarily mean that governments are evil or even that they are incompetent or ill-intentioned. Analogous to “market failure,” government failure refers to a situation where the particular incentives in government lead to a situation that is worse than what was intended with the intervention.
For instance, governments finance and provide primary education so that poor children can have access to learning. But if teachers are paid regardless of whether they show up for work, and politicians rely on teachers to run their political campaigns, the result is absentee teachers and poor children who don’t know how to read or write—precisely the opposite of what was intended. We see similar government failures in health care, water supply, sanitation, electricity, transport, labor markets and trade policy.
Why do I say the problem is government failure, and not, say, lack of education or health or infrastructure? We have known for some time that education, health and infrastructure are important for escaping poverty. The question is: why has there not been more education and health and infrastructure for poor people? The answer is not simply a lack of money. The problem is that much of the money spent on these sectors is captured by powerful elites before it reaches the poor. In Chad, this is literally the case: only one percent of the nonwage public spending on health actually reaches the clinics. In other cases, it’s more nuanced, such as the teacher (and doctor) absenteeism mentioned above, or when trucking monopolies keep transport prices so high that African exports are uncompetitive in world markets. In short, while education, health and infrastructure—among other things—are important, to get spending on these sectors to benefit the poor, we need to overcome government failure.
Overcoming government failure is difficult. These failures are the result of the interests of some powerful groups in society—including government officials and politicians—who will resist attempts at reform. What can be done? Pouring money into a leaky bucket will not solve the problem. And asking governments to reform—even if the request comes with the implicit threat of a cutoff in funds (sometimes referred to as “conditionality”)—is unlikely to work if the government itself is captured by the special interests. Perhaps the most productive action is to reach the people who are losing out—the poor—and empower them with information—about teacher and doctor absence rates, the incidence of energy and water subsidies, the costs of labor regulations and protective import tariffs—so that they can bring pressure to bear on politicians. Politicians can ignore technical advisers and external actors, but they can’t afford to ignore the citizens of their country.
To be sure, empowering poor people with information is not easy. First, many work 15-hour days just to make ends meet. Expecting them to attend village meetings or read the newspaper or listen to the radio is notstraightforward.
Secondly, information by itself may not be enough to empower poor people. They need mechanisms to hold politicians accountable. And third, governments may not welcome these efforts at making evidence available to the public; some will consider it incendiary, and attempt to block it.
But if we agree that overcoming government failures is key to ending poverty in Africa, we need to promote poor people’s access to information. Today’s technology helps. The fact that one in two Africans has access to a cellphone has made it easier to reach them—and for them to reach politicians. In a sense, then, Jim’s social media campaign—and other open knowledge initiatives—are more than just ways of eliciting ideas about ending poverty: they are potential instruments to end poverty.’