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Friday, 9 February 2007

Getting the best from a poor bunch...

Whenever a Zambian is cornered on what is needed to take the country forward, they tend to gravitate towards the 'dedicated fellow hypothesis' as the last resort. It goes something like this: "All Zambia needs to develop is dedicated and selfless fellows to take advantage of the huge funds that are available". I recently heard this during the 2006 elections campaigns, and am now hearing it again from the Zambian intellectual commune we dearly call FGOs (Future Government Officials) as they collectively ponder on how Zambia could leap forward in 2007. The central assumption in this 'dedicated fellow hypothesis' is that no matter how many good policies political parties promise, character is paramount to delivering development to Zambia. And since the Zambian political scene is dotted with individuals with the wrong motives, we are doomed to say the least.

I must say I do have some sympathy to those that reach that conclusion! Our Zambian culture constantly emphasises the need for character and steadfastness, but that aside, in my view even if the hypothesis was correct, it suffers from two practical problems that renders it unworkable: First, how you find these 'selfless fellows'?. Secondly, and perhaps of crucial importance, how do you get them to be involved in development?
Without answering these two fundamental questions, the 'dedicate fellow hypothesis' fails to sufficiently address how you get the best from the 'poor bunch'.

I think we can all accept that Zambia has good selfless intelligent individuals (FGOs), the issue is how do you get these individuals involved? How do we make the good emerge from a large pool of the bad politicians? This is where the clarifying power of economics becomes so useful. Good economics as Professor Nicholas Stern once said is about "incentives" and "policies aimed at realigning those incentives". In my view there's a minimum level of policies that are necessary to aid the 'natural selection' of the 'good bunch' from a greater 'bad bunch'. However, this assumption immediately creates a paradox or vicious cycle - you need some initial institutional policies that encourage these selfless individuals to be involved who'll then deliver other development related policies, but to have the initial institutional policies you must have some selfless individuals who make them happen! I have no answer to this paradox but I would say we should concentrate our efforts on finding some initial institutional policies because it is a more objective target.

We should initially focus on ensuring that the political institutions delivered the right incentives for selfless individuals to take part in politics. One way of doing this is to ensure that you have a strong constitution in place that is culturally self consistent, you create a proper economic consensus that is uniquely Zambian, and most importantly you find ways of engaging people with knowledge in a non-committal way.

When you have the right policies that repair the political institutions, more or less the right individuals will emerge. A good political arena will have the right checks and balances and it won't matter whether a person is selfless or not. The system will ensure they delivered the right policies for the people. So my rallying call to the Zambian intellectual community is let's get the institutions sorted out (starting with a new constitution, organisations that taps into Zambian expertise abroad, etc) and everything will begin to fall into place. But obviously that very process is not so straightforward given the vicious circularity discussed above.


  1. Interesting view you present. However, I have my misgivings about reliance on "intelligently crafted process" and/or instruments of legislation i.e. "constitutions" as a mitigating control for flawed character.

    Processes change, and dynamics that control those processes also change. At the centre of it all - human beings - we change. Naturally, then, we cannot compose rigid processes/laws at a point in time that aim to address ever changing human charcter.

  2. Thanks Ntheye, some challenging thoughts!

    I think your point hints at the difficulties of specifying contracts in general - the incompleteness of contracts is always going to be a challenge - in effect a constitution is some form of social contract.

    This incompleteness as you have noted is dynamic (over time) and would mean that even when a constitution is written and accepted it may be incomplete over time. Things change as you say.

    But my reply to that is two fold:
    - the emphasis is on 'institutions' rather than any single institution...the constitution is one example, and whilst it may suffer from the problems you highlight, those could be addressed with other collaborative institutions...

    - the institutions themselves can be dynamic....there's no reason why an institution like a constitution cannot be responsive to changing circumstances...


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