Encouraging signs

Preliminary performance check

In the The ball is in your camp President Ouattara! post published the 11 April 2011 I outlined my expectations for the new government. The last point was an improvement for the Ivory Coast in international rankings of governance, produced by the likes of Transparency International, Freedom House and Heritage Foundation.

These rankings are probably the easiest way to gauge how the Ivorian government is doing, but they are a lagging indicator and I don’t think any of them have yet been published for a time period after Gbagbo’s fall.

So to check the Ouattara government performance – principally that they are not too corrupt – one has to look at datapoints here and there from what they have actually done.  So, here are a few encouraging things I’ve seen so far:

  • Infrastructure projects: A surprising amount has actually been achieved, roads have been built and paved, potholes fixed, new bridges built, construction started on a few big projects. And this is a very good indicator. With high corruption it’s difficult to get much done, because everything will cost a lot more, and result in infighting about who gets which bribe. Then there is the not so uncommon case where nothing gets done and all the money ends up in the pockets of the responsible politicians.
Opening ceremony for a bridge in Cocody
  • This is anecdotal evidence, but I’ve heard that a top level employee of a large international organisation, upon arriving to the Ivory Coast, said he’d never seen an African government work this hard.
  • Reduction of staff at the national television RTI and Air Ivoire, both badly run overstaffed companies where hiring had been far from meritocratic.
  • Reduction of checkpoints to officially 33 nationally. There are still illegal checkpoints, but at least in Abidjan the situation is better than in many years.
  • In the budget for 2012 there are more funds put aside for investments than in the last 3 to 4 decades (according to the responsible minister – haven’t checked myself)

In European media, when you hear about the Ivory Coast, beside Gbagbo going to the Hague, it’s usually about the limited bouts of violence that have happened.  I kind of think that stuff like the above is more significant and more important for the future.

Stealing It

Stories like the above are essentially about corruption, or how people with power use it to steal wealth produced by others – which has been a natural state of affairs in human history –  and how/if actions, institutions and structures are put in place to reduce it.

In Paul Graham’s book Hackers and Painters there is a chapter called Stealing It which is quite illuminating about corruption:

In conflicts, those on the winning side would receive the estates confiscated from the losers. In England in the 1060s, when William the Conqueror distributed the estates of the defeated Anglo-Saxon nobles to his followers, the conflict was military. By the 1530s, when Henry VIII distributed the estates of the monasteries to his followers, it was mostly political. But the principle was the same. Indeed, the same principle is at work now in Zimbabwe.

In more organized societies, like China, the ruler and his officials used taxation instead of confiscation. But here too we see the same principle: the way to get rich was not to create wealth, but to serve a ruler powerful enough to appropriate it.

This started to change in Europe with the rise of the middle class. Now we think of the middle class as people who are neither rich nor poor, but originally they were a distinct group. In a feudal society, there are just two classes: a warrior aristocracy, and the serfs who work their estates. The middle class were a new, third group who lived in towns and supported themselves by manufactoring and trade.

Starting in the tenth and eleventh centuries, petty nobles and former serfs banded together in towns that gradually became powerful enough to ignore the local feudal lords. Like serfs, the middle class made a living largely by creating wealth. (In port cities like Genoa and Pisa they also engaged in piracy). But unlike serfs they had an incentive to create a lot of it. Any wealth a serf created belonged to his master. There was not much point in making more than you could hide. Whereas the independence of townsmen allowed them to keep whatever wealth they created.

Once it became possible to get rich by creating wealth society as a whole started to get rich very rapidly. Nearly everything we have was created by the middle class. Indeed, the other two classes have effectively disappeared in industrial societies, and their names have been given to either end of the middle class. (In the original sense of the word, Bill Gates is middle class.)

But it was not till the Industrial Revolution that wealth creation definetly replaced corruption as the best way to get rich. In England, at least, corruption only became unfashionable (and in fact only started to be called “corruption”) when there started to be other, faster ways to get rich.

Seventeenth century England was much like the third world today, in that government office was a recognised route to wealth. The great fortunes of that time were still derived more from what we now call corruption than from commerce. By the nineteenth century that had changed. There continued to be bribes, as thee are still everywhere, but politics had been left to men who were driven more by vanity than by greed.

2 thoughts on “Encouraging signs

  1. Pingback: Thoughts and Photos from Abidjan a Year After Elections and my First Visit

  2. Pingback: Podcast with the Finance Minister « Hotel Ivory

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