Friday, March 30, 2012

The Bahamas - a model for African Democracies

One of the common misconceptions about the stagnant development of African countries (and here I'm separating socio-economic and political development from raw economic growth) is that they were set up for failure by colonial powers, be it the United Kingdom, France, Spain or Portugal. The argument is that the systems, institutions and laws/policies put into place have somehow 'handicapped' African countries and prevented them from progressing in 'their own way'. We hear about the 'Nigerian' or 'Ghanaian' or 'Ugandan' way of doing something, as if those countries existed in their present forms before colonization!
Of course, these are merely excuses for poor fiscal management, ridiculously high levels of corruption and lack of infrastructure development, primarily around education, healthcare, transportation networks, security and energy (electrical power, in particular).

Recently I decided to visit the Bahamas, a trip influenced by the fact that my fiancee is from there. She had talked up the Bahamas before our visit, and I knew a lot about the history of the country, including its reputation as the 'Luxembourg' of the Caribbean (assuming the Cayman Islands is the 'Switzerland', and Turks & Caicos the 'Liechtenstein'). My historical knowledge and personal ties to the Bahamas could not prepare me for the level of development (again, not just economic!) that I witnessed. The road networks were fantastic, power was as regular as anywhere else in the developed world, the hospitals and schools looked to be top-notch; and the roads were well maintained. In its makeup, is the Bahamas really that different from any African country?

Not really.

The Bahamas gained independence in the early 1970s, very similar to most African countries (1960s-1970s), so we can't argue that they haven't had enough time to run down their infrastructure.
Of course, there's still a healthy expatriate population (at least 10%), but that's equally the case in other less developed Caribbean countries.
So why are things different? A lesson that we learned as children and as students is one that the Bahamas has put into living practice.
Be the best at what you can be.
The Bahamian economy is built around the simple but potent twin pillars of finance and tourism. These are practically renewable resources in the sense that as long as they are maintained, they should serve the citizens for several generations. The industries naturally lend themselves to the maintenance of quality infrastructure as well as a stable political arena.

African countries on the other hand, have placed their faith in diminishing resources. Resources that encourage greed, aggrandisement and the concept of 'dealing'; leading to the situation where most visiting foreigners turn up their noses at the country in question and openly declare that their sole purpose for being there is to 'make money'.
Countries that used to be considered agricultural Edens are now among the largest importers of basic foodstuff.
Countries with several thousand kilometers of prime oceanfront territory - more than that of most Caribbean countries put together - cannot boast of a single resort or five-star tourist attraction.
Countries with a rich cultural heritage, and some of the most stunning attractions in the world, have let those attractions fall to ruin or be obscured by urban sprawl and unchecked erosion.
Countries with abundant sunshine, healthy winds and natural lakes are bogged down by dependence on fossil fuels and precious firewood for power.

The time for African countries to reduce their dependence on mineral resources and start developing their institutions and economic pillars is now. Pillars that will stand the test of time and engender pride of citizenship and the collective will to sustain them. This paradigm shift holds the key to lasting economic growth and well developed socio-political institutions.
If the tiny islands of The Bahamas can do it, Africa has no excuse.

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