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Monday, 25 March 2013

Do We Need Good Leaders or Good Institutions?

The three Church mother bodies [CCZ, EFZ and ZEC)] recently released a press briefing with a critique of the current political and economic stitution. They also made the following observation on parliamentary bye-elections:
"Even though these elections are being held within the provisions and confines of the law, we are also increasingly seeing more and more by-elections being instigated or motivated by greed, individual interests and a selfish propensity for political dominance by the ruling party….Also we question the integrity of these by-elections. Who is really behind the current spell of elections? What value are these by-elections adding to our political environment? Why are our leaders so ready to waste such colossal sums of money in the campaigns whilst our hospitals still face a critical shortage of medical staff, equipment and essential drugs?”.....We therefore call upon our leaders to prudently exercise the power that the Zambian people have entrusted in them....”
The second set of questions seem pointless given that they have already said, “by-elections being instigated or motivated by...a selfish propensity for political dominance by the ruling party..”. So they already know PF is behind it. So why ask, “Who is really behind the current spell of elections?” Indeed, I doubt PF would deny this - rather they probably justify it as necessary given the 2011 electoral outcome. From PF's perspective the incentive structure in the system means they must act this way. They are trying to do what they can to have a working majority. That's their thinking whether people agree with it or not! 

So the bigger point that needs to be made is that by-elections cost lives. People are dying who can be saved by the money being spent on these endless by-elections. More children can be educated if the money was not wasted this way. More medicines can be supplied. Better water and sanitation can be provided. It is therefore morally and economic wrong to have endless bye-elections.

But the question is : how do we solve this problem? The answer is not simply calling “upon our leaders to prudently exercise the power that the Zambian people have entrusted in them....” because isn't that what has been done for the last 20 years?

We need to abandon this widely held delusion of what I call the "dedicated fellow hypothesis". The false delusion among many Zambians we simply need politicians with a good heart to change Zambia. The problem surely is that people who some thought were good and morally upright citizens are now being accused of abuse of power and being morally corrupt. Equally problematic is that other good people do not want to be in the political process because our politics is tainted. So calling for good behaviour and good people cannot be a sufficient answer!

I don't pretend to know the answer to this challenge but I have always said public pressure should concentrate on reforming our institutions. Yes, institutions reforms are not delivered in a vacuum. It needs good people to deliver those institutions! The point is that we should initially focus on ensuring that the political institutions delivered the right incentives for appropriate individuals to take part in the political governance of the country. One way of doing this is to ensure that you have a strong constitution that has the right incentive structures built in.

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. But critically a good institution framework that is geared towards better moral values in our political system will encourage a culture that reinforces such positive moral behaviour among individuals.

Clearly there are limits to what laws can achieve. Many Zambians contend the law currently is not worth the paper its written on. So even all the good laws written could be usurped by poor morally corrupt creatures with impunity! Institutions alone without good men to uphold those institutions would be insufficient! There's a limit to the institutions. But better institutional push remains a more objective focus or goal. The key is to design such institutions so that it allows more good people to emerge.

So my rallying call to the three church bodies is let's get the institutions sorted out. And let us design them in such a way that these institutions are founded on Judeo-Christian values of self sacrifice, care for common man and serving a larger purpose in life rather than survival of the fittest. Let us build laws that are culturally self consistent and calls us back to the vision of what our independence freedom fighters worked for. This starts with pushing for a good draft constitution. The current one on the table is very poor and ignores big issues like presidential immunity, accountability of MPs and judicial independence.

Questions: Is political effectiveness largely about morality or is it a question of institutions?  

Copyright © Zambian Economist 2013

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