Road to economic recovery requires compromises

Customers queue to withdraw money at a bank in Harare. Photograph: Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters

REBUILDING Zimbabwe is not going to be a stroll in the park. It is going to be a painful process that will require more than fiscal and monetary policies. Tough decisions will have to be made to undo the damage caused by the previous administration.

Develop me: Tapiwa Gomo

It will also require commitment from the people and sometimes sacrifices and compromises in order to get the country back on track. Most countries that have walked this route and succeeded in achieving growth have sacrificed and compromised a lot to get to where they are. Sometimes, such risks need to be taken.

Ethiopia the fastest growing economy in Africa, has prioritised economic growth over political freedoms and democracy.
They have allowed the aid community to focus on poverty reduction interventions, as they sought to modernise and industrialise their country. They are aware that they are an under-resourced country and it is not easy to accomplish both simultaneously.

They have been blamed for making such tough decisions, but it has paid off, as they are being credited for creating a promising economic growth model that is increasingly providing jobs and services to its people. Their story is not yet complete, but rapidly unfolding and there is no doubt that, if Ethiopia is not waylaid by unnecessary political upheaval like what happened with the military last week, it will be a success story. A lesson to be drawn from the recent Ethiopian development with the military, however, is that economic progress has bigger global enemies because it simply threatens the global status quo.

Rwanda, too, has been a sterling example that development can be achieved by an African country, but that comes at a price. From the dark ages of a horrific genocide, President Paul Kagame prioritised to establish a vibrant economy over other global moral issues. His policy was pretty much simple. Economy comes first over real democracy. It is a simple approach where a leader rallies his people’s energy towards creating the bread and butter than wait for the people to ask the poor government of the same.

He used an iron-fist approach, which he has described as guarded democracy, to reduce corruption and ensure political stability and increased productivity. And for those reasons, Rwanda has become an economic success story where the people are beginning to believe in Kagame’s vision as they are seeing the results of his leadership, despite critics citing human rights violations. If the country continues on that route, there is no doubt that Rwanda will be one of the thriving democracies in Africa.

Outside Africa, China too, took the same route. Nearly four decades ago, they made deliberate moves to prioritise economic growth over freedoms and democracy. In the eyes of the international community, this was seen as antithetical to global norms and yet for the Chinese government, it was a way of harnessing everyone’s energy towards their economic growth policy.

China has experienced rapid and vital changes in its political, economic, and societal realms over the past four decades because of the tough decisions made in the late 1970s. This has challenged the notion that democracy is the key to economic growth. While its trail has left recognisable imprints on a variety of human rights issues, there is no doubt that the state of ordinary Chinese is better today than it was four decades ago.

As the people’s economic conditions grow, they will be empowered to pursue democracy sustained by a solid economic environment. It is the economy that sustains democracy. This is why democracy struggles in countries where both the people and the government are poor, as often the later tends to abuse power over the helpless poor.

There are common and necessary conditions in these three examples – political dominance and tight centralised control of policies and patronage networks. The general argument that is yet to gain traction is the link between economic growth and democracy.

It is generally assumed that when a country is democratic, it is likely to achieve economic growth and yet the countries that champion this narrative achieved their economic growth long before they achieved democracy.

This is not discounting the fact that democracy allows for creative ideas and innovation, but it can also be disruptive to progress. When economic growth has already been achieved, civil liberties become more vital in holding those in power accountable, pursuit of economic reforms, private investment, the size and capacity of government, and a mediation in social conflict. All of these aspects become more relevant in a context where a society has already achieved a certain level of economic growth. The interaction between democratic institutions, the state and private sector over policy issues and distribution of resources becomes more relevant.

In her recent book, Edge of Chaos: Why democracy is failing to deliver economic growth and how to fix it, Dambisa Moyo, challenges the notion that democracy leads to economic growth.

She calls for review of the current practice of democracy to take into account the various contexts and how they relate to economic growth.

This is not in any way glorifying authoritarian leadership, but highlighting that when a country is led by a reasonably focused group of people, limiting political freedoms can also have great advantages such as imposing difficult yet critically vital policies needed to move a country forward.

Tapiwa Gomo is a development consultant based in Pretoria, South Africa