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The tyranny of expert advice

African leaders in Addis on Monday. PHOTO KAGAME.COM

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.


  1. Thanks for the article “THE LAST WORD” by ANDREW M. MWENDA of 1st July 2019, titled: Why Africans need to look beyond the oversimplification of our development challenges

    This is a reprint of an older version. As then and now, I ask the same question: Which Africans need to look beyond the oversimplification of development challenges? What are those development challenges? Africa is a continent and Singapore is a City-State. There are lessons Africa can pick up obviously. But, my contention is that Africa needs to be looked at from specific state and non state actor levels if one were to hold down the continental development kite flying wildly.

  2. When push comes to shove is the best way of describing Capitalism.It has brought out the worst side of mankind.Nations like Japan,China,South Korea,Ethiopia who stuck to Nationalism and that took time to study capitalism are economically comfortable. Actually most nations are now swallowing their pride and quietly reverting to Nationalization.

    It was not by accident that when the British colonized Uganda they found it easier to work with a certain category of Ugandans like the Anglicans and not the Catholics or Muslims.In Uganda today, the wealthiest Ugandans are either Catholics or Muslims this is not that they are great thinkers but its because the business world needs dishonest and backstabbers to survive.

    The idea of allocating jobs based on region is what is partly failing the government.

    The in Africa poor should be able to make independent decisions without political interference;for example home states in Eastern and Northern Uganda are poor by choice yet they have huge chucks of land. They are too rigid they listen more to their political leaders who for some reason feel that telling their voters the truth about the economics of land will cost them votes.

    • “for example home states in Eastern and Northern Uganda are poor by choice yet they have huge chucks of land”.

      To me the homes states are favorable for the prevailing climatic conditions especially North. The area is hot and you cant simply build an iron roofed House. The better home states need AC or fun that are often found in towns where power is available. Have you ever opened door and windows in such areas during the night.

      In shot, they are more scientifically advanced in there housing endeavors than rigidity you portray.

      • Benjamin are you aware that the climate in Sudan,Egypt and Israel is worse than that in Karamoja but they export food to Africa?

        Haven’t you seen those homesteads you are proud of being burnt during the dry season?I think if they had the means;the would also want to have self contained houses complete with AC’s,Swimming pools and flashing toilets.

        By the way the grass they use to build those huts year in year out doesn’t that affect the environment in terms of the greenery.

  3. Dr Eng Kant Ateenyi

    Though not in M9’s said whatsapp group, I came across that Mahbabu’s MPH reasoning recently and dust-binned it for almost similar reasons (to M9’s). There is another one by a Nigerian prof – also standing on three pillars: Intelligence, Integrity and some other – I do not recall properly – but to do with commitment. It seems to me that M9 would find this slightly more acceptable (certainly not entirely) but I dust-binned it as well.

    My take on underdevelopment of our so called countries is a lot more to do with the mindsets of a majority of our so called elites and their consequent inability to take initiatives to appropriately act. I neither have time nor space to elaborate here – but suffice to mention that when we African elites place too much value on ‘least resistance line of action’ activities/tasks/professions/etc, and reward them thus, we effectively help increase the development gap between us and others. It is not enough to just shout ourselves hoarse on this. People who know (or should know) must start to act!

    • Ateenyi, knowing what to do is an attribute every sober person is endowed with. But then, the powers-that-be, who have allocated everything fencible (that can be ring-fenced)to themselves either directly or through proxies will never let you do your thing no matter how noble the cause.
      The government(a group of people who govern) hates the rest so much that if God were to cause it to rain hailstones of gold in a given locality, it would be cordoned off in a short time and everybody searched and all the gold confiscated…….after some murders of course. People are crying all around that livelihood is more painful than ever before.

  4. What tyranny are you referring to, Mr Mwenda? The government and people of Singapore are not in a position to impose their development strategy on any other country.

    All the prof is saying is “New nations in the 1960s in Asia and Africa were generally poor. They all adopted a goal of raising the standards of their citizens in health and in education. They all sought to end the poverty under which their citizens mostly lived. Sixty years later the results are in. We have succeeded. Africa, with one or two exceptions, has failed. Now, here is how we achieved our success. Think about it”

  5. ejakait engoraton

    ” However, if asked to choose between competence and loyalty, many employers pick the latter.”

    LOYALTY can be made or created, COMPETENCE can not.

    And COMPETENCE combines science and ART( read nature), a la MESSI, HAMILTON, FEDERER, TIGER.

    LOYALTY can be created by say the pay package and the benefits that are offered.

    That is why even in real life, a man will not go for an unattractive woman like WINNIE, because no matter what and how much make up , bottox, fake bottoms and breasts she puts on, she will still be unattractive.

    YET if you pick a pretty or attractive lady from KIBOGA, you can take her to school. loyalty can come and other things can be worked on.

    SPEAKING more from the home angle, we note that most of our failings are related more to our RULERS putting people in positions because of LOYALTY ( people like OFWONO OPONDO ) other than because of their competence.

    THE results are there for all to see

  6. ejakait engoraton

    NEYMAR, RONALDO were very LOYAL to their respective clubs,just like their clubs were to them, but once a large amount of money was waved at them and the clubs(more money than was probably on that much talked about BOU plane), LOYALTY quickly changed, and if rumours are to be believed NEYMAR is about to change his LOYALTY, but all this is because of his COMPETENCE.

    • Dr Eng Kant Ateenyi

      Brothers Andrew, Ejakait and Rwasubutare and Sister Winnie:

      There are actually four main attributes unbiased and good employers will normally look for in a mission-critical job that needs to be done with minimal inputs (this therefore leaves out cases of trainees – who would need pupilage before full accountability). Knowledge – as in ‘good’ graduate in such and such field; Skills – as in how to use the knowledge to manually or mentally manipulate a system; Competencies – as in demonstrated abilities to best select knowledge areas and deploy best possible skills (call it optimisation) from the ranges possessed by the candidate in given circumstances; and lastly, behavioral attitudes – as in self and time management, and mapping to the organisation’s overall mission. It is part of the latter that M9 prefers to call ‘loyalty’.
      The strength in M9’s argument on loyalty would be that for trainees, other attributes could possibly be developed with time – but there lies its weakness as well: It is a no brainer for non trainees – who must deliver within the shortest time possible. Therefore, it is ‘stupid’ to offer a mission – critical job to someone who is lacking in any of the other 3 attributes. This is a cancerous disease among us Africans – not just in Ug but even in so called semi-developed South Africa down here!
      Now to brother Ejakait: I agree that competencies ought not to be compromised on mission critical assignments. But certainly they are developable. in Trainees. We are all born without them. Even after graduation, a majority of us do not have them! It is attitudes that we develop as early as we start relating to our parents/guardians all way through school (and non school) life as we try to fit in the societies we find ourselves in. That Kiboga lady example of yours probably has different attitudes from our comrade sister Winnie here. What good employers look for are ‘positive’ attitudes which might best help advance progress to their mission. For Trainees, indications of ‘loyalty’ in these attitudes are very critical because of the investment the organisation is going to put into this particular individual. Some skills are learnt in school but their perfection comes with practice. They can even be forgotten if not used for long. Competencies necessarily come after knowledge and skills development because they demand proficiency in judgement on deployment of these two. You cannot claim to be competent when you are ignorant or do not know how to do what.
      Now my dear brother Rwasibutare – I appreciate your view on the kind of nepotism and cronyism that obtains not just in Ug but all over our hapless black Africa. But if one has attitudes geared towards transformational change of the status quo, and is equipped with the other 3, s/he probably would select appropriate knowledge and skills either to change or to influence the system. Some people (including M9 perhaps) would call this, a demonstration of emotional intelligence to change things. The problem with many loud mouthed African elites (especially academics like some of us) is that we seem not to have a fair share of that.
      And to my beloved sister Winnie, I agree on your point about allocation of jobs according to regions. The act is nonsensical from a rapid development point of view. On other points you raise, I am not very sure – and therefore have no comment for now.

      Cheers Comrades,
      Dr. Eng. Kant Ateenyi

      • Ateenyi, what pains me is that I know(not read or heard) a time when Uganda government was so competent that every law-abider was satisfied with the way things were. Work and toil there was fine but it paid dividends. A manual labourer who did cleaning of the compound at the railway station in Kanyatete would be transferred to a remote railway station in Tabora and he would pack his household belongings and together with a family of 5 board train to Tabora via Nairobi onto Voi junction to Tabora. If end of month found him on the way, he still got paid his salary. That was how efficient communication was. I also know a time you would write your O’level paper 1 Mathematics in Fort-Portal on Thursday and would write paper 2 in Dodoma school and the marks would meet because of your index number.
        As for the attributes of knowledge,skills and competence and then loyalty, they were plentifully available. What can we say knowing that we had people like Semanda who was a shift-boss in Kilembe mines working productively fulltime but could be granted off-duty leave of absence of 4 days to go perform as striker for Uganda Cranes against a foreign national team. Ateenyi it is this same Uganda and it is these same people but corruption which was brought and nurtured by these people who hold all of us in a stranglehold. I have been in court where a magistrate (I won’t disclose the name)heard both sides and decided there and then the sentence……………less than 2 hours. No postponement, no opportunity for soliciting for a bribe, imagine the case of Susan Magara now.
        What bedeviled Ugandan administration to waste time like they waste money…. things that should take an hour to resolve take a year…..something unheard of during our youth… How long did it take President Amin to set up Uganda Airlines when Kenya confiscated all EAA aircraft? 1 month. How long did Paul Etyang take to set up the Uganda Railways when TZ confiscated the EAR rolling stock? less than 3 months and also set up the best maintenance workshop in Africa.
        Ateenyi, why do we always lament over incompetence and general decline of nearly everything but seem not to be aware of the mounting debt? If these people(govt) were mismanaging what is and even steal and sell, it would be tolerable; but to mortgage the whole country and future to foreign predators!

        • Dr Eng Kant Ateenyi

          Solid response from a great historian on his forum! I really admire your memory comrade. There may not be many of your kind still around. I just wish this memory did not kind of demotivate you and others of your kind in positively contributing to changing the status quo. I would rather you found means (which I believe is within your ‘attributes’ or abilities) to influence those in charge.

          Cheers comrade

  7. The goals of a state lies mostly on social responsibility:What does this entail;Good roads,hospitals,schools,tax collection,security while with Capitalism; its all about profits and who makes it to Forbes magazine.In all this Capitalism seems to be a better system coz there is no room for sloppiness there goals and targets a company needs to achieve.

    When government introduced parastatal organizations like UWA,URA,UNRA,NWSC, there is some vaule for money for contracts are renewed after appraisals.

    Workers are normally very productive during their first 5 years of employement coz they are employed when young then with time they get used to the work environment and begin taking their jobs for granted.

    @ Ejakaait & Rajab:Have you ever bought for your wives lingerie from Victoria Secrets?anyway 98% of Ugandan ladies are naturally beautiful and shapely. I have never eaten rolex obaa coz i am a Briton and abit picky .I know that most Ugandan men are conservative they will hesitate to date a lady who speaks English they love their women in Kiboga form.

    • Winnie, you must be very dumb. When a road is built, a bribe eater gets so much that they would wish all monies collected to go into roads… zero gratitude to those road builders… a hospital is not development you clown, it is a garage that mends things that went wrong…………so zero gratitude for hospitals where they enslave our sons and daughters by underpaying yet overworking them. Infrastructure is a bribe mulembeko whereby vanity of their women and mistresses and children is nourished and other vices cultivated. I went to school with the sons of John Babiiha (Uganda’s Vice president) so I know the difference between disciplined leaders of then and these vain ones of now.
      A day I will find hospital beds unoccupied and doctors and nurses dozing for lack of work, I will know preventive health has worked and development is upwards but to boast of a hospital or expanding its mortuary! Winnie, you are a predator and vulture and scavenger.

  8. Two International events took place this last week. One was the G20 summit that took place in Osaka, Japan. It is a forum comprised of the biggest economies in the world. The irony about the G20 is that it is also comprised of the top 20 countries with the most carbon emissions with the exception of Switzerland.
    The second event was a “natural reaction.” Europe experienced one of the deadliest heatwaves ever recorded in history. It is reported that at least eight people died in France, Italy and Spain with wildfires gutting large tracts of land in France and Spain. Montpellier, recorded 45°Celsius on Friday. These two events are “inversely” connected. Although, it’s Europe that emits the most carbon, it is Africa that suffers the most. Now, Africa was not represented at the G20 summit and climate change was never a central subject of discussion. But God works in mysterious ways. It is reported that the heatwave is as a result of the warm air rising out of Africa. If, in deed, this is true, then, Africa through their gods, paid back the Europeans in “equal measure!”

    Back to the subject of Mwenda’s tyranny. Mwenda disagrees with professor Mahbubani’s “secret formula” of MPH. Mwenda argues that the good professor “confuses” “Academic performance” with “professional competence.” Mwenda states that to be technically competent at a job one does not require professional competence, he firmly, therefore, submits that all that one needs is “loyalty.” Mwenda is in other words stating, that we should change the way résumés are written. That instead of the interested candidates expressing “professional capabilities” towards their prospective employers, they should “pour out” love towards them. Strange. In other words, that “love letters” should replace “C.Vs.” l will return later to this subject.
    For now, let me make a citation from Wangari Muta Maathai who was a renowned Kenyan environmentalist and political activist and the first African woman to win a Nobel Prize.
    On the 30, 1995 at the 4th UN World women conference, Beijing, China Maathai remarked, ” Africa has suffered from lack of enlightened leadership and bad style of political and economic guidance. While African leaders could have excused themselves for being unable to protect their people for the exploits of colonial empires in the 19th & 20th centuries, they can hardly escape blame for allowing neocolonialism which continues to reduce many of their people into paupers in their own countries. So fluttered by the new found power and prestige in their new state, many Africans become sacked into a mechanism which facilitates the continued exploitation of Africa and the Africa people. It was easy for the new rulers to be blinded with material wealth and privileges associated with wealth and political power because they were naïve and inexperienced. This development allowed the beginning of a small group of African elites who were in liaison with the rich North to continue the exploitation of the African resources while ignoring the fate of the impoverished majority. With that bad beginning, leadership in Africa became characterized by opportunism, personal advancement and enrichment at the expense of the masses. The new black administrators and the bourgeoning elites enjoyed the same economic and social life styles and privileges which the imperial administrators enjoyed. The elite class became accustomed to the privileged life styles which was impossible to sustain without the continued oppression and exploitation of the governed. And this laid the foundation for the present political, economic and social crisis in Africa. With a “sudden” raise for democratisation, Africans are rebelling and are threatening the very existence of the very nation States. Uncertain and threatened, those in charge succumbed to corruption, and more and more African States resemble a crumbling house from which both the owner and the onlookers scramble to escape with whatever can be looted.” Wangari, 1995.

    As rightly noted by Mwenda, through history and experience, we have been taught that development is a complex process with no straight forward answers. To state that African problems are because of the lack of “loyalty” is a need by Mwenda to “sift” through diverse perspectives in a single volume/word. We probably need to provide and get comprehensive debate and transcend the narrow concerns of macroeconomic stabilisation.
    We need a new consensus on the 21st century Africa but before that we need to redefine what “Africanness” means. Mwenda seems to hold a “reactive position” of it is either me or the rest being wrong. This unorthodox means of explaining the African crisis has been based on the absence of a cognitive model of the African economies. It is a view that denies the “self-sytled” Pan-Africanists the capacity to learn from others, or, to even implement the simplest of policies.
    Mwenda has severally referred to the failure of “democracy” in Africa simply basing on the view that Africa has experienced a number of governments/ presidents but with similar/familiar results. This is not true. The “nationalist movements” of the 1960s & 70s that assumed power did so on the basis of “pure populist” platforms and their eventual rule was neither Democratic. By ideological inclination, institutional inheritance, and class interest, no African leader not even “Afro- Marxists” could be identified as “socialism.” The economic growth that eventually took place was often under the aegis of one- party or military rule. The reach of the state was limited which earned them epithets like, “overextended”, “soft” and the “lame Leviathan.”
    Looking back at the last 30 years of Africa, one is stuck by how central politics has been to policy making. It is, therefore, tempting to blame “politics”, “leaders” for African crisis. What is endemic in most of the African States/societies is policy failures. Such failures rotate around the indiscriminate allocation of resources without any guarantees of reciprocal action by the recipients. The irresponsible monetary and fiscal policy. The failure to maintain physical infrastructure. Negligence of markets as an effective means of resource allocation. Failure to promote agriculture and the failure to introduce policies to support diversification of exports. If Mwenda narrows such a debate to “loyalty”, then, maybe there is also a thin line between science and fiction. And Mwenda has created his own “air bubble” about Africa that will only take us to Plato’s mystical island of the “Atlantis!”

    • Rajab, the elite political leaders you allude who replaced the outgoing colonialists were all compromised (read sell-outs) replacements; not winners of armed struggle. All the reason why they sold their ‘mothers'(country and its resources) and ‘siblings'(co-citizens) for textbook writs called laws. Rajab, I have of recent been open to you because you are a believer, what do you take of ‘evictions’? Mbu a person has a piece of paper called title deed that permits him to claim 5 square miles, then all occupants must be forcefully removed (in the name of the law) to make room for a chinese,indian or other ONE person to speculate on. How does that look like in the eyes of the real Owner of Land?
      Failure to develop Uganda is borne of stupid planning and dictatorship*(one man or clique deciding what should be done basing on kickbacks). I was in the Boy scouts serving on a Red Cross tent when president Amin was told by a certain man “Your excellency, you came by helicopter so you cannot know our road. It is terrible, let one truck driver tell you himself” Amin the hands-on fellow that he was, said ” Wakhweya, I will stay here in Butiaba until machines start to grade this road, when you reach Kampala send me beddings” Eng Wakhweya was Minister of Works. Wakhweya told him, “Your Excellency, you don’t need to because there is a lot of other work you should be doing all over the country, I will mobilise 3 graders and tipper trucks now and before we depart indeed, you will see them” that was in Butiaba in 1973. No chinese debt, no negotiations no bribes, just using what was already available.
      If in 1965, Tooro District (alone)exported copper(Kilembe),coffee (Bwamba),tea(Mwenge) and salt(Katwe) and Bukedi exported Cement(UCI), asbestos(UMA) had a Tryponosomiasis research centre(EATRO) and a jute (bags) factory. If I say Busoga (Jinja Industrial centre) people will not believe me. Things can be done as they were at that time without splitting hairs of bureacratic red tape.
      Teso had the (immortal)East Africa Flying School, Uganda Meat Commission…..
      Can you believe Rajab that when I began to see things in 1962, the tiny lakeside town of Masindi Port (not Masindi Town) had 2 big factories each using about 50 tractors and 50 lorries to do business….one factory processed molasses and the other processed sisal…………..I could go on and on but my point is that those developments were not attained by incurring impossible-to-pay debts.
      The point I am trying to make is that: (i) all these dinosaurs in government were alive then and benefited from the accruals of the developments I narrated (ii) they know it can be done again because they are the ones who ran it down (iii) they have more than they need in this lifetime and there is nothreat of their ever being poor if they ceased stealing now (iv)they have a way out and may retire into oblivion and munch themselves obese till the collector comes. Need they be shoved off unceremoniously and maybe end in Luzira or underground? Some advisor tell them.

  9. Dr Eng Kant Ateenyi

    Comrade Rajab –

    Thanks for pointing out that Africa is paying back Europe for its alleged sins. My worry is that it may not be long before Europeans decide on the following without our involvement:
    1. That the equatorial and tropical forests and all the flora and fauna therein, are ‘international’ assets – not to be exploited by anyone (read Africans) without some authority from somewhere in New York or Brussels —-
    2. That the deserts of Africa are also international ‘lands’ to be exploited by anyone with means without consulting those bordering them. I hope most readers on the forum are aware of the plan to generate solar-electricity in the Sahara and transmit it to Europe.
    3. That Africans are too disorganised, not knowing what to do with resources they are sitting on, and in a situation of making a decision to open Mars as a second home for ‘humankind’ (read Europeans), Africa is a cheaper and more feasible alternative!

    In such cases, I ask the question M7 sometimes asks: Who will defend Africa?
    I know this is quite off-topic for this week – but your contribution preempted what I always worry about when I keep seeing our (African) ineptitude on many issues.

    Cheers brother.

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