Saturday, 4 April 2009

(S)electing an approach to development - thoughts on the SA 2009 National election



“We will
  • Create jobs by reducing the corporate tax rate to 27% and creating export processing zones to attract labour intensive industries.
  • Give young South Africans who meet certain conditions an opportunity voucher, which will allow them to subsidise study costs or start a business. “
Party A

“Introduce a food for all programme to procure and distribute basic foods at affordable prices to poor households and communities. Government will develop an appropriate institutional approach for the implementation of this programme. “
Party B

“Within the first six months after the elections we will elaborate a comprehensive anti-poverty strategy
which will activate the poor in every household to participate in programmes to extricate themselves from poverty; within the first six months after the elections we will elaborate an Integrated Social Security System which will guarantee the social grants currently being received by children, the elderly, people with disabilities, those incapacitated by chronic illness, and the unemployed, relating these to programmes to reduce dependence on social welfare where possible, for instance by creating work opportunities targeting beneficiaries, and ensuring that children receiving grants attend school”
Party C

With the elections around the corner, I recently got myself tangled up in a discussion about voting and the relative merits of various parties – a discussion generated by some of the (generally fairly crap) online election polls that are currently out there. Firsty let me say, this is without a doubt the most exciting election in SA since 1994. For the first time, the political landscape is broad and varied, parties are finally starting to come out clearly for what they believe (although there is still a long way to go), we're seeing parties really start to use, respond to and manage media, there is broad popular interest in the election and it seems that many, many people are undecided as to exactly who to vote for. This combined with a political landscape significantly altered by the change in the ANC leadership and the emergency of various new opposition parties, including COPE, creates an environment where every vote really does count and elected officials are likely to be held accountable more easily than has sometimes been the case.

Before I go any further, let me say that I am talking here about national and provincial leadership of what is a complex, developing nation. These two spheres of government function significantly differently and have very different roles. As a result, my reasons for preferring one party to another differ at the different levels.

Nationally, government creates policy and laws and manages macro-structures and -systems. That's what it does and that really is all it's are empowered to do in the South African system. Although national government is sometimes involved in implementation, this is always done through the provincial and local government spheres. It therefore follows that the policies proposed by those running in a national government election are fundamentally important. They also dictate what will ideally be implemented, although the quality of implementation is really something for which the voters in provinces and municipalities must hold local and provincial government accountable.

Each party has a variety of policy proposals on the various key election issues. In each case, however, assuming there is some coherence in the party's stance, these are driven by a particular approach. In South Africa, given our level of development and the aim of helping people which is at the core of our concern as a nation and which really drives all our elections (if not all our governing), this is an approach to development. There are many approaches to development. These range from approaches driven by socialist or modernist stage theories of development to severely individualistic approaches driven by a belief that individual rights, particularly property rights, and inviolable to and basic needs approaches which position the state as feeding the poor. There are many parties out there but considering the manifestos of just three presents three very different approaches to development.

Without naming them at this stage, party A tends towards a modernist, industrialisation-based approach to development. They see the government as facilitating the growth of industry (including service-based industries) which will in turn provide jobs and increase the flow of capital in the economy. Typical of such an approach (and evident in their manifesto) is a focus on reducing the cost of doing business and removing restrictions which are seen by business, including international investors, as cumbersome – such as red tape, restrictions on foreign ownership and some particularly stringent and cumbersome labour regulations. Given that they'd like to get elected in a country with fairly high poverty levels, they are proposing some 'forced trickle-down' measures, such as vouchers for higher education, but their primary faith lies in the growth of business and the trickle-down effect. They would like to see education focus on ensuring that the workforce is provided with a steady stream of young graduates who are capable, disciplined and skilled and while they see the need for everyone to have access to education, in this paradigm the urgent needs of business more than justify separating those with ability and motivation from those who are disruptive, difficult or less able. Where government involvement is necessary to ensure that basic rights (such as access to healthcare) are not compromised, they acknowledge the need for public institutions but would like government to have as little involvement as possible in private institutions and, as far as possible, to limit their involvement in public institutions to appointing highly competent staff and providing funds. This approach has a lot of faith in the private sector and market growth to provide jobs and stimulate development and is highly sceptical of public institutions and government departments because these are so heavily prone to bureaucratic bungling, red tape and corruption. They see the market as the best hope for development and their fervent belief that South Africa can become an efficient, internationally competitive developed nation drives their policies.

Party B takes a basic needs approach with a socialist twist. They are the party for the poor. They are very concerned with ensuring that poor people are able to survive. In terms of the economy, their primary concern is to ensure that everyone is able to access the workplace, that labour-rights are protected and that the benefits of growth are more equitably distributed. They are very aware of the basic needs of ordinary people and their policies reflect that. They are trying very hard to ensure that the pie is more evenly divided and particularly that the poor are taken care of. They do this primarily by developing programmes that will focus on providing free education, free or low-cost healthcare and free or subsidised housing as well as programmes that ensure that those who feel they are marginalised are able to access jobs and opportunities and those who have previously been excluded are favoured in this process. They are concerned about issues like rural development and access to land ownership and favour processes which will speed up the more equitable distribution of land to ensure that more people, and particularly more of the poor, are able to grow their own food and be land-owners. They will work very hard to ensure that consultation takes place and to include poor communities in their programmes.

The basic-needs approach to development derives historically from the old-fashioned notion of charity and is really concerned with taking care of the poor people and making sure they are given what they need, while leaving the rich to look after themselves except for the expectation that they will contribute to the project of caring for the poor. The amalgamation of a slight socialist leaning with this approach adds another aspect of reproach towards the rich because the expectation of the rich becomes in a sense retributive – because there is an underlying feeling that really equal distribution of all wealth (from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs) is what should be happening, there is a sense that the richer and even the slightly richer (except for the party elected officials who are doing it for the people) should feel lucky that they're not being forced to give it all up and so should be very happy to give a lot and largely do what they're told.

These two positions seem to represent the centre-right and centre-left positions in South African politics at the moment, which is a perfectly reasonable positioning in any country. It is also a change from the past 15 years. Over the past few years, the SA government has in policy and at national level, even if not always successful at local and provincial level, take a developmental state approach to developing the country. This is an approach which I strongly favour and which is derived largely from the work of Indian economist and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, who in turn built on the work of a variety of other thinkers. Fundamentally this approach suggests that the aim of development should be a situation where people can do what they want successfully and contribute to the nation through that process. It is a capitalist approach but one which sees the state as playing a strong role as the facilitator of development. The state is responsible for removing obstacles to people making decisions and doing things. This includes providing a favourable business environment but also includes (what is probably the primary role of the state) the removal of what Sen calls 'substantive unfreedoms'. There are lots of things that fall into this category. They include unfair exploitation of labour. So, the creation of a favourable business environment must be balanced with ensuring fair protections for workers. Death, disease and lack of proper shelter or inability to find food are equally serious obstacles and things that the government should work to remove. Lack of access to the necessary education and skills training to be a successful member of a society/to survive are also unfreedoms that must be systematically removed. This is not an approach which assumes that everyone will end up equal but it does suggest that the state should be working towards providing some sort of substative equality of opportunity in life. It recognises that growing the pie will increase the possibility of people finding jobs, so there is value in that.

This approach may seem similar to the previous approach but there is actually a fundamentally important difference that I will term 'hand-up' vs 'hand-out'. Ensuring that poor people have access to healthcare - because dying tends to make it difficult for someone to be a successful part of society - is very different from trying to provide everyone with equal access to all healthcare, which carries connotations of regulating everyone (public and private) down to the lowest common denominator. The same is true of education, housing and all other sectors where the government is active. A basic needs approach with a socialist twist requires all those who are better off than absolute poverty to be part of a national effort where all energy and focus is primarily devoted to looking after those who are most poor. In a developmental state approach, the government allows everyone to get on with their lives as they choose – instituting only those limitations which are necessary for successful co-existence and limiting risks which are collectively carried (such as unsustainable environmental use) – and focuses on removing obstacles for those who are structurally excluded for joining the society and succeeding, through focused programmes largely intended to build infrastructure and services, rather than to give hand-outs (except in emergency situations).

Party C in South Africa is currently taking the developmental state approach. They recognise the need for the limitation of government institutions- because, in this approach, government is not necessarily ideally situated to play all roles and provide all things for all people - through independent institutions like the judiciary and plenty of checks and balances. In terms of the economy, they strive to balance the need to stimulate and encourage growth with the need to introduce and sustain policies that remove barriers to access to the economy. In probably their most strongly developmental (vs social welfare) policy, they would like to see social grants and social assistance strongly linked to longer-term, more sustainable efforts to give a 'hand-up' and help people move themselves out of poverty. They recognise poor health and lack of access to basic healthcare as a sustantive barrier to equality of opportunity and wish to focus on removing this. They recognise that one of government's primary roles is to fulfill their constitutionally mandated responsibility of progressively satisfying socio-economic rights – which also helps to remove unfreedoms. They see education and training as having the dual role of meeting the needs of the market and facilitating access for those who have been structurally (not only historically) excluded and plan to do this by introducing programmes that function alongside mainstream education to facilitate improved access for those who are structurally excluded. One of the key benefits of the developmental state approach is that it recognises that creating substantive equality of opportunity sometimes requires directing disproportionate amounts of resources to particular issues and areas based on the situation rather than a blanket assumption that all basic needs are the same. This includes crime-fighting approaches that are willing to do this.

I am biased in favour of the developmental state approach. The hand-out mentality of the basic-rights, charity approach, particularly with the historically-driven, chip-on-shoulder slightly retributive socialist twist seems to me to be mired in it's own self-righteousness instead of being focused on the future and moving people and the nation forward and out of dire poverty, which really should be what the government is focused on.

This leaves me with options A and C, as well as everything to the right of A.
The developmental state approach also differs with a market-economy industrialisation approach of Party A (DA) in that the developmental state will be larger and more regulatory than the government in the latter approach because although it recognises that economic growth is important and will try at all costs to interfere as little as possible in that process, it does have a responsibility to facilitate the development and movement out of poverty for those who are currently excluded from the market. For me, this is little choice. The developmental state approach allows industrialisation and economic growth to happen but also facilitates the removal of the structures and substantive unfreedoms which currently exclude many by positioning the government as having a responsibility to remove unfreedoms. This negative role prevents a nanny-state, is much more than a hand-out and in my humble opinion can focus in on those who are actually excluded without too seriously limiting or affection those who aren't, because it is dynamic and solution-oriented.

In just a few weeks South Africans go to the polls. In past years, the vote was absolutely obvious for me. For the past few years, the South African government has been clearly taking a developmental state approach in policy formation and at national level and where successful implementation has taken place it has worked wonderfully, confirming all my belief in this system. Unlike many of my peers, I would like to vote to retain this approach at a national government level in this election. Unfortunately for me, the ANC, despite all their claims of continuity, has chosen not to run on a developmental state approach in this election. Instead they have shifted to the left and their manifesto reads like a charter for the basic-needs with a socialist twist approach described above as party B. The emergence of COPE for me is less about the people and more about a belief in a developmental approach which perfectly complements our constitution and will continue and build on the good policy framework that is already in place, hopefully with added implementation success depending on who is elected in the various provinces. When people criticise COPE as being just another ANC, I think they miss the point. COPE takes precisely the developmental state approach the old ANC intellectuals had been working towards because it is the best approach. It is the new ANC which has shifted to the left and abandoned it's developmental approach.

PS. Interestingly, the ACDP seems to be the other party taking a semi-developmental state approach, although their attempts to impose Christian morality make them a non-starter for me
PPS. Given the length of this post, I decided not to elaborate on provincial votes. Suffice it to say that I'm in the Eastern Cape and given the ridiculous mess the ANC has made of this province (R5mill unspent in housing, education and health in a shambles, etc., etc.) it's a no-brainer.

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