Is political will the ultimate challenge to development?

Why is it that even though the African continent is abundantly gifted with natural resources, the continent continues to be home to many of the poorest nations on earth? More importantly, how is it possible that some similarly situated countries also on the continent have somehow managed to succeed or are at least on course to do so where many have failed?

Why is it that even though the African continent is abundantly gifted with natural resources, the continent continues to be home to many of the poorest nations on earth? More importantly, how is it possible that some similarly situated countries also on the continent have somehow managed to succeed or are at least on course to do so where many have failed?

This piece puts political will or the lack of it at the centre stage of this brief discussion.

But first things first –how do we determine that although many African countries have remained poor, a few others are gradually climbing the ladder of success? Do we just look at each country’s Gross National Income (GNI) – which is the sum of a nation’s gross domestic product plus net income received from overseas – and then determine, as the World Bank does, that country X is still a low-income country, country Y is now a lower-middle-income economy, while country Z has now moved up to become an upper-middle-income economy?

Unfortunately, using GNI as a measure of whether people’s standards of living (which is the ultimate goal of any government) are improving has limitations, chief among them being that GNI which measures income received by a country both domestically and from overseas does not tell us how the total output is distributed amongst the different sections of society. This measure focuses a lot on wages, profits, interests, and less on distribution of national income to individuals.

Which brings me to my preferred measure – the United Nation’s Human Development Index (HDI) – which emphasises that people and their capabilities should be the ultimate criteria for assessing the development of a country, not economic growth alone. According to the United Nations Development Programme, HDI can be used to “question national policy choices, asking how two countries with the same level of GNI per capita can end up with different human development outcomes.”

The answer to the question of how two countries with the same level of GNI per capita can end up with different human development outcomes in dimensions such as a long and healthy life (read life expectancy); knowledge (read education); and a decent standard of living (read GNI per capita) is none other than the political will, or the lack of it.

Political will is not an easy concept to define let alone measure. This is because even though success or failure of many government objectives is often attributed to political will at the very top, or the lack of it in case of failure, little research has been conducted to understand factors that determine political will besides the motivation for political survival – a factor neutralised in most parts of Africa. Some leaders have led for decades, and yet standards of living of their people have remained poor.

In spite of its vagueness, political will can be described as the determination of an individual political actor or actors to put into action policies that bring about change, real change for the people. In a paper, Deconstructing Political Will, Lawrence Woocher, research director at Science Applications International Corporation, lists three main conditions required for action, all of which seem relevant in the wider political context: knowledge of the problem; appropriate policy to address the problem; and the willingness to apply the appropriate policy i.e. the political will to act.

Looking at the first condition – knowledge of the problem – except in exceptionally bizarre situations, identifying and knowing the problem or problems in a given area should be a basic duty of relevant institutions. For instance, if malaria were to become a problem, you would expect the health ministry to have in place mechanisms to confirm the suspicions, the seriousness of the problem, and who is most at risk.

The second condition – prescribing appropriate policy – again, assuming that qualified personnel are made ready and available to study the real problem(s), prescribing appropriate policies should not be rocket science. You would, for instance, expect the health ministry to have an action-plan of how to fight malaria and what resources are needed to succeed.

The third, and perhaps the most important condition of all is the political will – the will to act on recommendations or solutions. In most African countries, the lack of this political will is extremely widespread and widely believed to be a major hindrance to development efforts. Most of those responsible to act are either not in tune with the problem, or lack the urgency needed to act. Either way, action is found wanting, which is a sign of the lack of political survival – whether I act or not, I will be an official tomorrow – so why bother!

Recently, in a letter to this paper, one Mwene Kalinda hit the nail on its head when he wrote that: “everything starts and ends with political will…we could in fact say even the lack of means is a function of lack of political will.” I couldn’t agree more. You see, political will, the determination of an individual political actor or actors to put into action policies that bring about change cannot be underestimated.

In Rwanda, for instance, the presence of political will radiated by those at the very top of the country’s political apex, especially President Paul Kagame, has led to outstanding outcomes in areas that matter; education, healthcare, infrastructure, welfare, security, and governance. When a problem is identified, solutions follow, and outcomes become visible. Lack of action on the other hand prompts questions – publicly sometimes.  

Admittedly, at this pace, it is reasonable to predict that many African countries will continue to preside over increases in GNI per capita. That said, with the absence of the political will to act on problems that face the average citizenry, increase in GNI will not necessarily translate into improved standards of living that take into account people and their capabilities as emphasised by HDI.

In Africa where development is needed the most, political will is needed now more than ever. It is needed at country level just as much as it is needed at continental level. Identifying problems and prescribing the right policies will lead to an outcome only if action is taken – the political will to act. Without it, we may have a car parked, fuelled, and even facing in the right direction (read resources and policies), however, ultimately, the car will need a key in the ignition to start. Political will is that key.

Email: junior.mutabazi@yahoo.com.uk

 

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