Why Africans need to look beyond the oversimplification of our development challenges
THE LAST WORD | ANDREW M. MWENDA | Last week, a member on a WhatsApp chat-group I belong to posted a video of a Singaporean professor explaining why that country transformed from a third world to a first world economy in a generation. The professor, Kishore Mahbubani, offers to give the “secret formula” behind this phenomenal success. It is an explanation a large section of global and African elites are always keen to embrace. This is driven in large part by belief that there is something wrong with our countries and political leaders.
Mahbubani’s “secret formula” to Singapore’s success is MPH where M stands for meritocracy, P for pragmatism and H for honesty. He argues that Singapore avoided the temptation for ideological and policy dogmatism and instead followed what worked i.e. was pragmatic. Of course, there is a thin line between pragmatism and opportunism, just like there is a thin line between being principled and being rigid. While I agree (to a large extent) with him on pragmatism, I found little to agree with on meritocracy and honesty.
For instance, he explains that Singapore created a system where public sector jobs were given on professional merit. But then he confuses academic performance with professional competence yet the two are quite different. He explains the selection of Lee Hsien Loong, the current prime minister of Singapore who is also a son of founding Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, on purely academic grounds by saying that he was a top student at Cambridge and later at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.
Often the most brilliant students in class rarely become the best politicians or administrators. They become lecturers. To be technically competent at a job does not require only high grades in class but a series of other attributes; like emotional intelligence to manage people and situations. Secondly, the most important quality for a public (or even private) sector employee is not even professional competence but loyalty. Of course the two are not mutually exclusive. However, if asked to choose between competence and loyalty, many employers pick the latter.
George Akerlof won the Nobel Prize in economics in large part by showing that is it not professional excellence or incentive pay that makes successful organisations. It is identity i.e. one’s identification with the goals of the organisation. In politics it would be called patriotism. Even in war, success does not go to the best-trained and most professionally competent militaries (even though that is an important factor). Rather it goes to the army with a strong commitment to the cause for which they are fighting.
Meritocracy is overrated. By most accounts, the United States overtook Great Britain as the world’s largest economy in 1888 as industrialisation accelerated. Yet up till 1890, there was not a single official in the U.S. government who had been recruited on the basis of professional merit. On the contrary, all public sector employees were being hired on nepotistic i.e. jobs were being given on the basis of political and social connection to relatives, friends and campaign agents.
There was resistance to the introduction of the civil service entry exam in Europe and the USA. Meritocracy in the Western world is a consequence not a cause of development. We see this in the works of Max Weber on capitalism and bureaucracy in the early 20th century. Even then, Weber made it clear that his arguments of meritocratic recruitment were an idealised version rarely found in reality. However, meritocracy has always been a valued attribute of recruitment into the public sector in East Asian – Korea, China and Japan. It dates as far back as 600-500 BC largely drawn from the teachings of Confucius and practiced over millennia.