International Policy Digest

Foreign and Commonwealth Office
World News /26 Jul 2017

Botswana’s Economic Miracle

Martin Jacques in his book, When China Rules the World, noted that, “very few countries have combined democracy with the process of economic takeoff.” All of the developed nations experienced their industrialization and economic growth (moving from a largely agrarian society to a largely industrial society) as monarchies, military states and other undemocratic governments. For example, Britain experienced its economic takeoff in the late 18th century, but by 1850 only one-fifth of men had the right to vote with women only experiencing that right over a 130 years after the Industrial Revolution. In Asia, among the East Asian Tigers, South Korea and Taiwan were governed by military dictatorships, Hong Kong a British colony not afforded democracy and Singapore was described as authoritarian while Japanese males only got the right to vote in 1925. Martin thus argues that developing a nation’s democracy isn’t necessarily the most important goal; economic growth, ethic harmony, a fight against corruption, and sustained order and stability should arguably take precedence over democracy.

The reason why industrialization is rarely synonymous with democracy is that industrialization occurs at the expense of the people. A prime example is the low-wage manufacturing industry taking over in China. Citizens of an industrializing nation will accept low-wages when moving from an agricultural society. But this seldom goes on forever, especially as their governments and corporations see increase in revenues as their wages remain stagnant. A large example of this is the famous labor movement in America in the early 1900s. Before allowing workers their fair share, corporations make technological improvements and move their manufacturing across borders once the labor unions win their wage wars.

This is evident in American companies shipping jobs to China and the continuing shift in manufacturing jobs in China from Hong Kong to Guangzhou in search for lower wages. Western governments in the 1800s allowed harsh working conditions, long working hours, child labor, industries without health benefits and what would be now considered unlawful termination, all at the expense of industrialization. Workers discontent was either tolerated by their moving from worse living conditions or silenced by an undemocratic government and massive profits enjoyed by the corporations.

From its inception, the Botswanan government has been democratic and has championed worker’s rights, human rights, and social welfare. Botswana once known as one of the poorest countries in the world, in 1966 had a GDP per capita of about $60. However, from the 60s to the 90s, Botswana experienced the highest economic growth rate in the world. Botswana’s GDP per capita is now $6800, an 11-fold increase in just over 50 years.

The then newly formed government awarded its presidents 18-year terms in office. This turned out to be a positive for the citizens of Botswana, whose presidents had to wade through droughts and an ever-looming apartheid South African government. Botswana was lucky enough to have its first two presidents who championed ethnic harmony, economic growth, sustained order and stability, and strong measures against corruption. Former President Sir Seretse Khama united Botswana’s tribes under an equal banner as Botswana. He united the Batawana, Batlokwa, Bagammangwato, Bangwaketse, Barolong, Bakgatla, Bamalete, and Bakwena during a time when tribal rivalries made it impossible to focus on the goals of a nation-state. Botswana has experienced political stability through Khama’s 14-year presidency and through former President Sir Ketumile Masire’s 18-year presidency. Masire, who also served as Khama’s Vice President and Minister of Finance and Development Planning is largely responsible for Botswana’s astonishing growth from one of the world’s poorest nation to middle income status.

During these two presidential terms, Botswana moved from being a largely agrarian society to a mineral based society. It had 32 years governed by one party-the Botswana Democratic Party, which focused policy on establishing an export economy built around beef, copper and diamonds. To further growth, the Botswana Development Corporation was established in 1970 to attract foreign investment in tourism, manufacturing and agriculture. With revenues from the mining, agricultural and tourism sectors, the Botswana government invested in the development of health, education, power and transport and communications infrastructure. It then, over these two lengthy presidential terms, concentrated its efforts on economic growth and the establishment of government institutions. Had its first two presidents’ terms not been as extensive and as comparable in economic policy as they were, Botswana’s economic growth would have never experienced the heights it has.

Botswana is among the few countries Martin Jacques describes as having combined democracy and economic growth. The Botswana government took a process that has mostly exploited Third-World peoples and turned it into a process that is for the people. By using all revenues to build health, education, judicial, and other government institutions it made economic growth something that was welcomed by its citizens, while avoiding worker exploitation and low wages. Botswana’s democratic start was similar to undemocratic governments that prioritized industrialization, in terms of having a party that governed unopposed for 32 years with an above all mission of achieving economic growth. However, because of this lengthy period of focused economic policy, Botswana was able to escape constantly changing economic policies that are brought on by a constant change in ruling parties.

Do we need to institute longer presidential terms? How should countries juggle economic growth, national stability and ethnic harmony alongside democracy? What should be regarded as the beacon of modernity, economic growth or democracy? When pondering these questions, one must surely analyze the case of Botswana.