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Inside Africa’s real tragedy

A CLASSROOM: Our government promises to provide education and healthcare to everyone.

THE LAST WORD: How the ideology of a welfare state has destroyed our continent and impoverished its people

THE LAST WORD | Andrew M. Mwenda | Everywhere I turn these days, Ugandans (and Africans generally) are complaining about the sorry state of our education and healthcare systems. There is a widespread belief across development literature that state (or public) investment in health and education is a panacea to the problems of development.

I recently saw Bill Gates in Nigeria regurgitating this mantra on CNN. It is intriguing how people, even the most enlightened, can pick on an idea that lacks historic precedent and turn it into a widely accepted truth.

The reader should note that I am not against education and healthcare. There are many economic and welfare benefits that come with an educated and healthy citizenry. I am against the idea of publically funded universal education and healthcare in poor countries for the simple reason that they do not have the resources to do it. But this ideology has led our people to expect the state to provide these social services for free to everyone, everywhere.

The idea of a nanny state doesn’t stop at only publically funded healthcare and education. Recently, the government of Uganda and its “development partners” began piloting a project in thirteen districts where the state will be paying an allowance to all poor elderly citizens in the country. The plan is to make it universal. The government of Uganda is very poor. Public spending per person (total national budget divided by total population) is about $170 this financial year. Yet our government wants to construct a welfare state with functions rivalling those of the USA where public spending per person this year is $21,860.

Ugandans (and Africans) may never know how debilitating this state welfare ideology has been first, to the evolution of a functional state; second, to the development of the right social attitudes and mentality for individual and collective progress; and third to the economic transformation we seek. I will address the effects of this state welfare ideology on these three points in turn.

The idea of a welfare (or nanny) state is a recent one. It emerged in the early 20th century and gained traction most especially after World War Two. Historically, people’s education, health and pensions were the responsibility of the individual, his/her family, the church and other charitable bodies. Across the Western world, it was not the responsibility of the state to babysit citizens. People progressed based on individual initiative.

The welfare state ideology was occasioned by the transformation of Western countriesfrom backward rural, agricultural societies to modern urban industrial nations. This led to the development of a large middle class, professionals, organised labour and “civil society.” But its most definitive feature was the enormous growth in state revenues due to increased incomes.

Thus, at the time most Western nations adopted the welfare state, governments hadresources to pay for it. However, this ideology was transferred to poor countries as a religion without any consideration to their resource capabilities. In fact it became “the way every state functions”. This has burdened states with responsibilities they have no capacity to handle.

Look at the state of Uganda as an example. Our government promises to provide education and healthcare to everyone, everywhere for free – on a budget of $170 per year. This is absurd. The consequence is that the state is overdeveloped in function but underdeveloped in capacity; its reach goes far beyond its grasp. This is the leading cause of widespread corruption and incompetence. Ugandans may never realise that it is attempts to do everything for everyone everywhere on a shoe-string budget that is the cause of the institutional dysfunctions we so often complain about.

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