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Criminalising being poor

Why governance standards set in the West and imposed on poor countries are dangerous

THE LAST WORD | ANDREW M. MWENDA | Last week, a friend posted on a social media platform an article by a US scholar about life in a democracy and an autocracy as imagined by Americans! The author argues that the enjoyment of a fulfilling life is a much more complex matter to be reduced to whether one either lives under a democracy or an autocracy. He also argued that Americans imagine every country that is not a democracy is the worst version of an autocracy or totalitarian state of the Nazi type.

However the author, like many Americans and other people from the West, assumes that America is a democracy where life for everyone is fine. My knowledge of the experience of many ethnic and racial minorities in American shows that many live under conditions of a fascist autocracy. This is in spite of, and also because of, the way America’s liberal democracy evolved. The belief that liberal democracy constrains bad government behaviour is based more on religious faith (a secular religious faith) than on evidence.

The genocide of native Americans and their disenfranchisement today, the enslavement of African Americans, later replaced by Jim Crow (the name of what was American’s apartheid system) and now by mass incarceration, the exploitation of labour and the discrimination against women etc. in America have all been done through and by America’s liberal democratic institutions. Liberal democracy, therefore, does not automatically end a nation’s ghosts.

Indeed, the struggle for civil rights by the different social groups of American society – poor white men, African Americans, women, workers etc. – was slow and hard. Thus in spite of (and precisely because of) regular elections, a free press, a large and diverse civil society and a representative parliament, it has always taken decades for any of the disenfranchised social groups to move the liberal democratic institutions of America towards reform. And even when reform has come, it has never been linear – it grows by feats and starts of five steps forward, three steps backward.

Yet this is not a condemnation or even a moral judgement of the American state and its ruling elites. Rather it is to underline the conservative worldview I hold and which in fact I learnt from some of the leading Western scholars like Edmond Burke and Frederick Von Hayek i.e. that the present does not exist by mistake. Any attempt to radically alter the institutional architecture of a society is likely to produce more harm than good.

Thus as a philosophy, conservatism abhors revolutionary change in favour of evolutionary change. This is for the simple reason that the world is much more complex in reality than in theory. Any attempt to impose a utopian vision on a messy and ever-evolving human landscape will fail or cause ruin. Americans ignore this their own historical experience and lesson, when they expect and actually demand that other nations should democratise within a week. This way, American officials seem to deny these countries of politics so that democracy is a result of a single decision by a single man or woman than being a result of long and slogging struggles whose progress is not even linear.


  1. The state in low-income countries, annual income per capita of less than $1,000, historically always extracted and distributed wealth in much more effectively and efficiently than any private entity could at that point of economic development for that country. The ambitious and or through their allies working as state agents used this state power to gain access to wealth.

    Unfortunately, according to Mr. Mwenda, this strategy for wealth accumulation is presently criminalized and stigmatized through the nasty name-calling ignoring centuries of this self-evident political-economy Darwinism that is necessary for state economic development and is pushed by moralists that don’t wish poor countries well.

  2. Bwana Mwenda, you have nothing to worry about.

    In the case of Uganda, patronage and clientelism are alive and well as tools of administration. The elite cackling of “corrupt and backward” is mere noise which is rightly ignored.

    There is of course the slight problem that it’s not just the masses or the elite who want certain things done, the leadership also wants certain services delivered and delivered on time. Officers appointed via patronage have a tendency not to perform.

    Uganda’s leadership have a solution for this. It has appeared in various versions over the years but the original by Mobutu (the grandfather of patronage and clientelism) is the best. It went “IBA NA MAYELE” (MUBBE NA MAGEZI)

  3. ejakait engoraton



  4. Democracy ,wealth accumulation and progress are aspects of human existance that can never be put in proper perspective possibly because of our limited tenure on earth our differences inwhere we see the world from. It may be a great idea of its time that ignites debate or some chronicler giving insight at the status quo .Yet human dignity anywhere any time will constantly define how all human endeavour will be ranked as we put it in perspective. Nazism might hve been a great idea at its time but the millions of dead Jews will negate all it aspired to acheive. Apertheid legislation in south Africa might have put the deserving Dutch pioneers at their rightfull position a head of the theiving English colonialists but see where it placed the blacks who reached the center of action late. the Khmer Rouge in Combodia the revolution in Luwero and the Genocide in Rwanda all did little to the diginity of the poor and as far as establishing democracy , that is debate for another. I was suprised when i visted my home in Kasese to find that cow skins and pig offals are the fare at the dinner table of many respectable households . I asked who eats the real meat?

  5. 1.There is absolutely every reason why the 1st World Nations should be concerned about the economic,political and social affairs of the poor nations.USA and Europe are right now grappling with refugees and voluntary slaves from the 3rd world.
    2. is it by accident that that most citizens from the third world are fleeing their nations for a better social life in the 1st world? the answer is yes meaning that best practices can be copied from the first world nations.
    3.Has the first world tried to improve the social welfare of the poor states at times they try for example, World Bank and EU provide loans at no interest to 3rd World Nations to develop social structures;the MDGs set by UN is also another sign that the first world wishes us well.
    4. Police just wanted to annoy the person of the President;How could they allow Bobi Wines’ and Kabaka’s followers meet in Wakiso recently well knowing that one group was high on traditional herbs and the other high on weed?

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