Why leaders of poor countries are not as cruel and selfish as Western media portray them
In a moment of madness, I toyed with the idea of running for president of Uganda. I had the hubris to imagine I am the guy who can solve its myriad problems because President Yoweri Museveni is incompetent and his perennial challenger, Dr. Kizza Besigye, is a demagogue. I sought to be scientific and drew up a budget that could provide a modest basket of public goods and services associated with a modern state – education, healthcare, agriculture extension services, clean water, electricity, roads, etc. My conclusion was depressing and – I hope – illuminating.
Without bothering the reader with too much statistical detail on wages and other capital investments, the budget I drew up using ministry of Finance and World Bank figures was modest. It totaled Shs210 trillion or $1,700 per person per year. Then something struck me: This financial year, Uganda has revenues of Shs11.3 trillion and a budget of Shs18.3 trillion i.e. $150 per person. Compare that to the U.S. federal, state and local government that will spend $20,900 per person in 2016. I know that Ugandans often like to compare their government’s performance with that of the U.S. But how can Uganda govern itself like the USA on such a small budget?
Perhaps a better approach would be to ask how America governed herself when it had public expenditure of $150 per person per year. I searched for this and found it was in the year 1860. America had a population of 31 million people and a public expenditure of $178 million. When adjusted to inflation, it comes to $4.93 billion or $159 per person in 2015 dollars. I also searched the structure of US society in 1860. I found that it was 20% urban and 80% rural – exactly as Uganda today.
Looking at U.S. federal, state and local governments spending for that period, I realised the U.S. government did not spend a penny on agriculture, healthcare, education, pensions, or welfare. Were U.S. leaders ignorant of their duty to provide these public goods and services to citizens? Were they corrupt, cruel or insensitive to the welfare of citizens? There was cruelty in America e.g. slavery. Yet I am inclined to believe the main reason was affordability. Public revenues were insufficient to fund a larger basket of public goods and services.
Yet citizens of poor countries today expect governments to provide public goods and services associated with a modern state even if their revenue is miniscule to govern this way. The result is that governments spread their resources too thin leading poor supervision and hence corruption and incompetence.
Africans tend to hold their governments to standards of Western nations in spite of their vastly different social and economic structures
I tried to compare Uganda (Africa) with Western Europe. In 1820 all the nations of Western Europe had a higher per capita income than Uganda today: Belgium, $2,400 in 2015 dollars at PPP, France $2,064, the average for Western Europe was $2,187. USA was $2,340. Uganda’s per capita income at PPP in 2016 is $2,000. So I asked myself: How were they governing their people at a similar per capita income, per capita revenue/expenditure and social structure (urban-rural) as Uganda today?
None of them did so by delivering a wide range of public goods and services that we associate with a modern state. They relied on patronage, prepends, spoils-system (otherwise called corruption today) for legitimacy and on repression for compliance with their rules. Then I noticed something: all these societies had a similar social structure as Uganda (and other poor countries) today – a large non-educated peasantry, a small educated urban middleclass, and capitalist development in its infancy. Doesn’t this social structure engender a specific form of governance?