Develop me: Success breeds complacency, but complacency can breed failure

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In last two instalments, I discussed the need to reclaim or redefine ourselves as one of the key factors in forging our development path.

I followed this up by arguing that this must be supported by a sound knowledge-based through research and development.

A combination of these must usher in a strong of sense of confidence which we lack so far. I gave China and other Asian countries as examples of success stories on how maintaining their cultural identity, confidence and how harnessing the power of knowledge has spawned innovation and economic development.

As always, there are split views of the types of power. I received interesting arguments that the power to develop does not reside in knowledge but money. In fact someone argued that when a country has financial muscle, then they can acquire knowledge.

“As I am writing China is busy buying up top professors, financing entrepreneurs and various scientific enterprises to extend its soft power and ideologies,” writes one of our NewsDay readers.

China did not start off as a rich country as I will illustrate later, but they used the power of knowledge to develop.

By knowledge, I meant the ability to use what you know or have to get what you need. China knew that they could transform their huge population into labour and entice Western corporation to invest their country.

They were also aware that while providing labour, their citizens would acquire acknowledge, which was good for China in the long-term plan.

Because they now have both financial and knowledge power, they are now strengthening their belief in knowledge, which is why they are “buying” top professors to continue developing its soft power.

Perhaps for a moment let’s pursue the knowledge vs money argument. Three decades ago, countries such as Malawi, Burundi and Burkina Faso were ahead of China on an income per capita basis, while South Korea had a lower GDP (gross domestic product) per capita than Ghana.

Whilst GDP per capita may not be a perfect measure of wellbeing, there is significant correlation between poverty levels and GDP per capita rankings.

Today China and South Korea are among the world’s biggest economies while Malawi and Ghana are still fixed in the lower section of the Human Development Index.

Firstly what did the Asian countries do better than their African counterparts? The Asians believed in themselves first before heavily investing in knowledge transfer, invention and technological innovation.

In 1978 there were only thirteen patent applications from South Korea to the US but by 2008 it had gone up to almost 9 000, while in China patent filings went up by 33% just between 2004 and 2005.

This just demonstrates the hunger for knowledge which is largely part of the Asian economic transformation.

Secondly, what did the Ghana, Malawi and most African countries not do to transform their economic fortunes? The first answer is addressed above; we did not innovate or invest in the power of knowledge like our Asian friends.

Thirdly, we were too caught up in the euphoria of independence to an extent that we forgot that there was a future, the result of which is the pessimism that has become synonymous with the continent wilting many hopes and ambitions among African citizens.

Our leaders, for so many years, behaved as if the West owes us life and they have now shifted that attitude to Asian countries absolving themselves of the responsibility of taking things into our hands.

Most of the African states were reluctant to make a radical break with the past even when they knew there were no serious penalties in doing so.

Nationalist leaders, including some who are still in power today, have always used liberation struggle and having brought independence as an excuse for staying in power even when they did not have a clear development strategy.

For how long are we going to be fed from the rhetoric of the past?

This is a typical case of success which bred complacency, but complacency which has marked the economic downfall for most African countries.

By mid-1980s most Africans were as poor or poorer than they had been at the time of independence and in the end they submitted themselves to the whims of the International Monetary (IMF) and World Bank.

Senegal became the first African country to apply for a structural adjustment programme (SAP) from the World Bank. By mid-1980s, 36 governments had signed to IMF or SAP programmes totalling 243 loan agreements.

Still money in the form of loans did not help the economic fortunes of Africa, but knowledge and strategic thinking transformed the Asian countries.

The poor economic performance, the bursting sewage pipes, the unclean water in our pipes, the power cuts, the bad roads and the collapsing public service and the continued dependence of the West or East are examples of leadership that basked far too long in the euphoria of independence without realising that independence was not the end but the beginning.

African countries are not the only victims of euphoria and the failure that comes with complacency. In 2008, the three American vehicle giants, General Motors, the Ford Motor Company and Chrysler, lodged a desperate appeal for bailout packages to the US Congress.

These big three companies, once among the most powerful and successful corporations in America — were suddenly reduced to appealing for cash from the government.

The government had to chip in with a bailout to save the economy and the hundred thousands of jobs that were on the line.

The reason for their collapse was simple — they had developed complacency in the knowledge and confidence that they were market leaders and therefore did not need to change.

They turned a blind eye to the technological innovation happening elsewhere and their Asian competitors were spending time and money producing cars that catered for the taste and needs of the twenty first century.
Still, Africa is not short of brains, but leadership.

Tapiwa Gomo is a development consultant based in Pretoria, South Africa