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Africa versus East Asia

By Andrew M. Mwenda

Why South Korea succeeded where Uganda failed

A common argument to explain (the better term would be to “caricature”) post independence failures in Africa is always in comparison to East Asia. It is often argued, for example, that by 1960, Ghana and South Korea had the same per capita income of roughly US$100. Yet 50 years later, South Korea’s per capita income is US$ 32,000 while Ghana’s is US$ 3,100. Therefore, the conclusion goes, there was gross mismanagement of Ghana’s potential in comparison to effective management of South Korea’s opportunities. The often unsaid but certainly underlying thesis behind such comparisons is that there is something inherently wrong with Africa. That unsaid “something” is racial; an inherent incapacity for self government.


Although this stereotype was developed by Europeans, its greatest proponents today are African elites – both ignorantly and inadvertently. I write this article with a lot of humility because I also have been an active but subconscious contributor to this narrative. On the surface, the argument seems self evident; how could two nations with the same level of per capita income take divergent developmental trajectories?

Yet the focus on per capita income ignores the most salient ingredients that influence developmental outcomes. For lack of access to detailed information about Ghana, I will substitute it with Uganda which enjoyed an almost closer level of per capita income as South Korea in 1960.

By 1960, South Korea had been in existence as a nation for over 600 years with a strong and centralised state, a common language and a shared consciousness of nationhood. There had been a brief interruption of Japanese colonialism from 1910 to 1945 (35 years). Therefore, the challenge facing Sigman Rhee and later Park Chang Hee, the military rulers in Seoul, was not nation or state building but economic reconstruction after the devastation brought about by the war with what later became North Korea. On the other hand, Ghana by 1960 had been born three years earlier, Uganda two years later. The immediate challenge facing Kwame Nkrumah and Milton Obote was to mould a nation from tens of disparate nations and tribes with different languages, cultures and sometimes hostility to each other.

Secondly, South Korea was endowed with rich institutional traditions based on meritocratic recruitment into the bureaucracy through an intensely competitive Public Administration entry exam known as the haengsi. By 1960, this tradition had been in place for 450 years. It allowed government to promote people from within the ranks than hiring from outside the bureaucracy. Japanese colonialism had actually relied on South Koreans to man the civil service. This gave it vital institutional memory, avoided resistance that comes with change in leadership, ensured supply of high quality expertise and a strong espirit de corp – assets that are intangible but valuable.

On the other hand, up until 1957, there were hardly any Ugandans in the top civil service jobs, the first one appointed to a top position being Yusuf Lule in 1958. Although the British had introduced rich civil service traditions of meritocratic recruitment and promotion, few Africans were integrated into this culture and only in the last days of colonialism. The majority of Africans who served the colonial state were clerks and messengers. With the departure of colonialists at independence, every African with a good education but without experience and skills became a permanent secretary, a commissioner or head of a large public enterprise.

For example, in 1960, Uganda’s entire public service excluding nurses, police and all but a few hundred teachers was a little more than 5,000 strong in a country of more than six million people. Out of the top 10 percent of the civil service jobs categorised as “professional”, Ugandans occupied only 10 percent i.e. 90 percent were non-nationals – Europeans and Asians. Then out of the next tier 30 percent categorised as “technical” jobs, only 40 percent were Ugandans; and out of third tier 30 percent categorised as “sub-technical”, 65 percent were Ugandans. The rest of the jobs, categorised as clerical, were largely occupied by Ugandans.

This nature of power under colonial rule shaped the character of post colonial politics. The nationalist struggle for independence was fought to get African-Ugandans to participate in the management of the country. Yet, although this demand was understandable, the country did not have experienced and skilled people to take over immediately. Obote resisted attempts at rapid Africanisation and relied on inherited European and Asian expertise to sustain administrative competences. This allowed him to expand service delivery without undermining quality. But it also caused his downfall. Thus, when Idi Amin came in, to build his popularity, he met popular demands for rapid Africanisation by chasing away Indians and Europeans thereby precipitating economic and institutional collapse.

Economists have shown that for a country to avoid violent conflicts and sustain a reasonable rate of growth, it needs to have a critical mass of its citizens with primary and secondary school education – about 50 and 30 percent. By 1960, primary school enrolment in South Korea was 60 percent and secondary school 36 percent. Meanwhile, 12 percent of South Korean men and four percent of the women aged 18-21 were either in university or high technical institutions.

In fact by 1930, South Korea had a large supply of technical skills even in the remotest parts of the country. Technology and its application were widely diffuse in the society. With a large army of artisans at every level, there were many small cottage industries producing various value-added goods in the far flung parts of the country. These latter formed the human infrastructure to support industrialisation. All they needed to do was upgrade their skills and join industries producing automobiles, electronics and other industrial consumer good.

In Uganda, on the other hand, primary school enrolment (P1 to P6) in 1961 was a 12 percent. Junior Secondary and Senior Secondary (S1 to S4) was less than one percent. And total enrolment in S5 to S6 was a mere 323 students. There were only 450 students in technical schools of all levels. Yet in spite of these miserable numbers, Uganda was among the most educated nations in Africa. By 1950, there were only two universities in Africa south of the Sahara and north of the Limpopo – Makerere in Uganda and Ibadan in Nigeria. Consequently, at the time of independence, for example, Tanzania had half a dozen university graduates, Rwanda and Burundi had none at all and Congo (Zaire) had less than 10.

At both the level of internal capacity to manage complex modern institutions and at the level of education, there were very limited skills. The belief that under colonial rule services were good is misleading because the services were very narrowly focused, like under apartheid South Africa, to serve a very small population of expatriates. After independence, there was an attempt to rapidly expand these services to serve the wider African population. As a result, the state became overdeveloped in function yet it was underdeveloped in capacity; so its reach was far beyond its grasp. This is what led to the many failures that we African elites cry so much about.

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