Ali Mazrui in his television series, ‘‘The Africans,’’ argued that nature (the geographical location of Africa), foreign invasion and Africa’s failure are the three reasons why Africa’s economic development is retarded.
He may have borrowed his thesis from an 18th century French Political philosopher, Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brède et de Montesquie generally referred to as Montesquie who noted the geographic concentration of prosperity and poverty, and proposed an explanation for it.
He argued that people in the tropical climates tended to be lazy and lacked inquisitiveness. As a consequence, they didn’t work hard and were not innovative, and this is the reason why they were poor.
Montesquieu also speculated that lazy people tended to be ruled by despots, suggesting that a tropical location could explain not just poverty but also some of the political phenomenon associated with economic failure, such as dictatorship.
Mazrui refers to the tropics as a Garden of Eden in decay and pauses to ask “why would anybody work hard in nature’s bounty”? To prove his thesis he narrates his childhood activities in Mombasa where he needed no shoes to play soccer. And in Winter North, shoes are a necessity.
While these arguments have been disapproved by many academics, a good number of people both in the tropics and non-tropics believe that these theories are accurate.
When Mazrui argued that bounty has held us back from prioritising long- term planning, we have in most cases given his argument credence when we fail to plan. Take for example climatic changes that in a year or so, we shall have severe drought. Although we are aware of this four year cycle phenomenon, we shall all behave like it is an emergency when we should be planning now.
By 2030, more than 50 per cent of the population will live in urban areas up from 34 per cent today yet there is no urban planning going on at the moment in all 47 counties.
We know the consequences of unplanned settlement (where more than 60 per cent of urban population live) yet peri-urban areas such as Ongata Rongai, Kitengela, Ngong, and Kiambu are growing as though they want to catch up with Kibra, Mukuru Kwa Njenga, Mihan’go, and Mathare.
Why do we allow such mediocrity? Whilst there may be no straight answer, I know that greater Nairobi Master Plan was done, but somehow it may never be fully implemented.
How does planning cause poverty? Hernando De Soto, in his book ‘‘Mystery of Capital’’ has powerfully argued that lack of planning especially in developing countries of the tropics causes informal settlements (without well-defined property rights).
He notes that the poor in under-developed countries have assets, but that their real property is often owned informally, and thus cannot be used to generate capital. As a result, the crucial role of real property is simply absent in under-developed countries.
He proposes a planned urban development that will enable transformation of dead capital into live capital through the institution of formal property rights.
Ironically, the rich in the tropics even those known to have stolen from public coffers refer to the poor as lazy. Unknown to them is the fact that in the eyes of those who prescribe to Montesquieu’s thinking, we are all in the same basket.
We must therefore collectively fight the stigma. In successful economies, they collectively resented mediocrity through revolts whenever it crept into their path to building inclusive institutions that led to their success.
Similarly, we must not run away from public schools when teachers don’t teach but fight to get the best for all. We must not run away from public hospitals when nurses and doctors fail to give services but fight to ensure that every Kenyan has access to the best medical care.
We must not hide in our private vehicles when public transportation is sending many of our productive people into the grave but fight to create the best public transportation system there is. This is how nations build inclusive institutions to guarantee a better life of their citizens.
Success is a function of hard work. Whether you are selling vegetables on a street corner or you want to launch a space shuttle, the common denominator is the amount of effort you put into whatever you are doing. The best way to fight a stigma, is to go out there, work hard and prove the world wrong.
The writer is a Senior Lecturer, University of Nairobi and a former Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Information and Communication.