Reply to Robinson on Botswana

[Lawrence Harrison asked Stephen Lewis, the editor of Botswana ex-president Quett Masire’s forthcoming autobiography, Memoirs of an African Democrat, to comment on the discussion of Botswana in James Robinson’s reply to Harrison’s lead essay. Lewis’ case study on Botswana is featured in Harrison’s book The Central Liberal Truth. – eds.]

Having spent a substantial part of the past thirty years working in and for Botswana and writing about its development, I read the differences between Larry Harrison and James Robinson as narrower than the latter’s criticism of the former would suggest. Clearly, as Robinson says, there was good and strong leadership in Botswana in the 19th and early 20th centuries, before the Protectorate was declared and before independence. And, there were well-developed local institutions, centering around the role of the chief and the chief’s kgotla (gathering place for consultations, as well as for criminal and civil procedure under Customary Law) in governance at the local level. The leaders who came forward before independence, led by Seretse Khama and Quett Masire, faced the problems of creating national institutions of governance to replace British indirect rule through chiefs, to promote national rather than tribal loyalties, to transfer mineral rights from individual tribes to the national government, and to establish democratic rather than autocratic institutions at the local level (e.g., to remove the right of the chief to allocate tribal land or stray cattle). The process started in 1961 with a newly elected African Council and a Legislative Council that included equal numbers of blacks and whites (plus one Asian), and it continued well past independence in 1966.

It may be a matter of semantics, but it seems to me that it is pretty difficult to separate two things: the attitudes and practices that I suspect Harrison would attribute to “culture,” and the formal institutions Robinson associates with “the Tswana states.” Those institutions were fundamentally transformed by the leadership of the new nation. The skill with which they incorporated the traditional (cultural?) approach of consultation before decisions were reached by chiefs into the modern forms of democratic institutions at both national and local levels was, I think, remarkable. That the colonial leadership in the Protectorate, in the person of Peter Fawcus, incorporated that same consultative approach in making the reforms was a major contributing factor to the success of that transformation.

A former colleague in Botswana was once ruminating on the Protectorate era, and he remarked, with some anger, “The British left us with nothing!” Then he paused and considered the lack of the colonial heritage that plagued other African countries and smiled, “On the other hand, the British left us with nothing.” Traditional institutions, and I would say, traditional culture, was almost completely undisturbed by the Protectorate authorities. A whole host of characteristics that are valued by Tswana society carried over into the way in which the new institutions of government in fact operated.

Robinson suggests that if the right institutions and policies were in place the rest of Africa could grow as Botswana has grown. Having worked in other African governments as well as in Botswana’s, I would observe that the processes by which the “right” policies are developed are critical. Those processes depend not just on the formal institutions, but also on the way in which they are operated by political leaders and civil servants. Expectations of honesty, modesty, accountability and open debate, for example, are examples of what I would think of as “cultural” characteristics that I found when I first began working in Botswana—and that I found were absent in a number of other African (and Asian) countries that have not “worked.”

Also from This Issue

Lead Essay

  • Culture and Economic Development by Lawrence E. Harrison

    In this month’s information-packed lead essay, Lawrence E. Harrison notes that the role of culture has been badly neglected in serious studies of economic devewlopment. But then, he asks, what explains “why, in multicultural countries where the economic opportunities and incentives are available to all, some ethnic or religious minorities do much better than majority populations?” Harrison reports some results of his recent Culture Matters Research Project, including the finding that “Protestant, Jewish, and Confucian societies do better than Catholic, Islamic, and Orthodox Christian societies…” Harrison provides a number of incisive country case studies, illustrating different ways pre-existing culture can produce economic results, and the ways policy and politics can transform culture.

Response Essays

  • The Universal Culture of Progress by Gregory Clark

    In his reply to Harrison’s lead essay, University of California, Davis economist Gregory Clark writes, “I simultaneously want to endorse [Harrison’s] promotion of culture, and to run screaming from his lethal embrace.” While agreeing that the failure of purely institutional explanations of historical economic growth “opens the door … for culture,” Clark argues that “attempts to introduce culture into economic discussions so far have been generally either ad hoc, vacuous, blatantly false, or void of testability.” Clark points to great variation in economic performance within cultures and religions, and worries that Harrison’s “measures are not a pure probe into the essence of local cultures, but reflect institutions and economic environments that change the real possibilities for people.”

  • The How, The What, and The Why of the “Culture Matters” Thesis by Peter J. Boettke

    In his reply to Lawrence Harrison’s lead essay, George Mason University economist Peter J. Boettke argues that it is not culture but institutions–“the rules of the game that govern the way that people interact with one another”–that are the primary determinant of economic growth. However, culture may be crucial, Boettke argues, since it is “a tool for the self-regulation of behavior” that may raise or lower the cost of monitoring and enforcing compliance with “the rules of the game.” And that can make the difference between the success or failure of growth-conducive institutions and policies such as “private property, freedom on contract, limited scope of regulation, monetary restraint, fiscal responsibility, and open trade.”

  • It’s Not Culture by James A. Robinson

    James A. Robinson of the Harvard University Department of Government argues that Harrison’s measures are insufficient to establish that culture is the x-factor in economic development. For example, Robinson argues that the relative success of certain ethnic and religious minorities may be due to concessions from the majority group, and not the features of the minority culture. Also, Robinson asks, if the economic success of Chinese minorities in other countries is “because they have such a good culture, then why is China one of the world’s poorest countries?” And if Chile’s success lies in its distinctive culture, “then why did it manifest itself so recently?” Robinson concludes that “culture might matter, but doubters like me will not be convinced by the evidence here.”

The Conversation