In his talk at the Cato Institute yesterday, South African political scientist Greg Mills shared a conversation he’d had with a Latin American government official, who observed that “complaining about globalization is like complaining about the quality of one’s orgasm.” This “there is no such thing as a bad orgasm” mentality has produced Latin American success stories like Chile and Panama. In his book Why Africa is Poor, Mills argues that the same approach could work in Africa as well.
He believes "a positive approach to competitiveness" could transform the continent, and is achievable through a “simple formula of policies.” A lot of these are commonsensical and many are cost-free. Right now, it takes four weeks for Zambian copper to reach South Africa by train. Says Mills, “a border should be something you speed by at 50 miles an hour, not something you sit at for weeks on end.” In Zambia it takes 33 government permits to run a certified tourism agency. As a result, the country has only a single developed corridor around Victoria Falls. The Zambian government has spent 50 years producing reports on how to diversify its economy and tap into global markets—none of which, according to Mills, have ever really been implemented.
Yet some of the most intuitive changes would be far from painless. Mills says Zambia could undertake the kind of sweeping regulatory reforms needed to build its manufacturing sector and attract tourism, things like purging its socialist-era civil service and getting rid of windfall taxes on mining and agriculture. But to do so the leadership “would have to signal the end to business as usual” in a country where “business as usual” is working out just fine for a foreign aid-subsidized government and a government-subsidized urban elite.
Behind the usual rent seeking lurks a deeper reason for African economic stagnation, and it’s highlighted by what Mills called the potentially most important African political development since independence: the possible secession of the South Sudan. For Mills, the failure of states like Sudan, Ethiopia, and the Congo “illustrate the difficulty of extending governance over these large territories.” A free South Sudan would kick off the process of political fragmentation and smart, pro-growth governance that he thinks Africa needs to overcome its economic ills.
Unfortunately, Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir is ready to go to war to preserve the Sudan’s oil wealth and prevent a third of the country from becoming a pro-western independent state. The South Sudan will likely become a reminder of everything holding Africa back, namely violent, rent-seeking governments that can act with almost total impunity. Mills realizes that this is a problem. “Colonialism gave you a sense that someone else was responsible for your destiny,” he said, explaining why Africans seem willing to tolerate even the most self-isolating and incompetent governments. But in the Sudan, the Congo, and other large, dysfunctional countries, there are already violent and destabilizing anti-government elements at play—and no stable foundation on which a functioning, pro-globalization government could stand if those elements are ever victorious.
South Sudan aside, Mills’ argument that stable yet under-performing states can lead the rest of the continent forward is appealingly optimistic without being overly utopian. If war-torn states like the Sudan are ever going to save themselves, the Zambias of the region—small, peaceful, resource-rich countries brimming with potential—must save themselves first.