According to Mahbubani, the biggest cause of failure in the development efforts of poor countries is corruption i.e. lack of honesty. This is the most popular misconception of development in contemporary thinking. Its adherents are committed to it as a religious doctrine in disregard to all historical and contemporary evidence. Most of the developed countries of today had high levels of corruption during their intense period of transformation from backward, poor agrarian societies into modern affluent industrial nations. China is rapidly transforming today against the backdrop of high levels of corruption – as did South Korea in the 1960s, 70s and 80s.
The reader should not think that I am calling for nepotism and corruption as virtues in our countries. Indeed, emotionally I get extremely upset at corruption and nepotism because they are unfair and immoral. However, it is wrong for an intellectual to mistake morally repugnant behavior for impediments to economic development.
Nations are not biological organisms the management of which depends only on technical considerations. They are social organism whose management involves complex social-cultural calculations. Leaders do not make decisions where choices are between right and wrong, good and bad. On the contrary, every decision they make involves tradeoffs.
For instance, the first condition of prosperity is not merit or honesty but order – the creation of a secure zone where people can trade and thrive. How leaders achieve this goal differs from one country to another depending on circumstances. In our multi ethnic peasant societies, order is established by first addressing the problem of identity. This is critical to make the different ethnic/religious groups who compose a polity feel a sense of belonging to the political community – Kenya, Senegal, Ghana, Uganda or Nigeria.
One way African leaders have achieved this is by building large and diverse electoral and/or governing coalitions. They coopt influential leaders of opinion from the different ethnic and religious communities such as traditional leaders, religious clerics, articulate youths, accomplished professionals, successful businesspersons etc. and bring them to the centre of power as ministers, ambassadors and other high ranking government officers. This is what creates the sense of belonging to their constituents. But it comes at a cost. For instance, leaders make a tradeoff between meritocracy and inclusion and choose loyalty over professionalism.
Secondly, how do these powerful ethnic and religious elites in poor countries secure the following of their communities? Through the extension of personalised benefits to their followers by connecting them to jobs, contracts and by giving charity – paying fees, medical bills and feeding their needy constituents. This is especially critical because poor countries simply do not have the resources to provide a large basket of public goods and services to all their citizens to the quality and quality desired. Resources to distribute such personalised patronage come through corruption. That is being pragmatic i.e. doing what works.