Botswana: Encouraging track record, but challenges must be tackled 

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Botswana Investment and Trade Centre, Botswana Development Corporation - Photo: Hilda Lieberman/Wikipedia

Despite tough challenges, Botswana has reached the league of upper middle-income nations. Benedict Lopez takes a closer look at this African nation.

Seldom is positive news about African countries highlighted, except occasionally for news about a few nations like Rwanda. Often, the news is about abuse of power, civil unrest, tribal wars, poverty, corruption and natural disasters.  

So, it was refreshing for me when a friend texted me two pages of a book about a small African country that has progressed remarkably since its independence: Botswana.

Landlocked in southern Africa, Botswana is ringed by South Africa, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe. When the country gained independence in 1966, it had only 12km of surfaced roads, 22 university graduates and only a hundred secondary school. Way back in 1950, Botswana was the fourth poorest country in the world.

Despite its diamonds, Botswana was hit by Aids, ravaged by cattle disease and ruled basically by one party, with an ineffective opposition. During the independence era, one journalist even remarked that the country had only “vast, trackless wasteland” with little to offer.

But Botswana did not end up as a failed state; instead it evolved way beyond expectations. For three decades after independence, its gross development product (GDP) rose by 8% per year, surpassing many other nations.  

Political stability was key to the country’s success. Botswana managed to avert coups, tribal wars and dictatorships. Pragmatic policies, coupled with good governance, enabled Botswana to stride ahead.  

Botswana outperformed many other African countries by having sound, respectable institutions that protected property rights. People in Botswana could own property without having to worry about it being seized or taken away by the state or unscrupulous authorities.

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Now, after over five decades, Botswana is often seen as an Africa success story, an epitome of a successful economy, its small population of 2.3 million working in its favour.

Today, any tourist visiting the capital, Gaborone, will notice the tidy streets, systematic traffic flow and modern glass buildings radiating against the backdrop of blue skies. This is poles apart – and a striking contrast from – many other African capitals.

Diamond mining has contributed significantly to Botswana’s economy, making up 80% of export earnings. The prudent management of the country’s diamonds has seen the country avoiding the footsteps of many developing countries whose have plundered and embezzled their wealth from minerals and other natural resources.

Tourism is also an important foreign exchange earner for Botswana. The country’s wildlife expanse is home to a variety of animals including lions, leopards, cheetahs, giraffes, zebras and elephants. Botswana has more elephants than any other country in the world: it is home to around 130,000 African elephants.

But in the last three months, over 360 elephants have died under unexplained circumstances here. Some carcasses were found bundled near oases, while others appeared to have died, falling flat on their faces. Concrete investigations need to be carried out to find caused this tragedy, especially given the significant worldwide loss of elephant life.

As a species in danger, the African elephant is earmarked on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s red list. The first great elephant census, a Pan-African survey conducted in 2016, showed that from 2007 to 2014, the elephant population plunged by at least 30% or 144,000.

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Both these contributors to the country’s economy – diamonds and tourism – have been responsible for sharp rises in the country’s GDP per capita – 100% growth over the past fifty years.

With help from international development aid and rising revenue from diamonds, the country channelled its resources into critical areas such as healthcare and education.

These investments have paid off. The poverty rate has plummeted, though almost a fifth of the population remain below the poverty line. Health and literacy rates are high, while attendance at primary school up to age 13 is around 90%. The country invests heavily in education, including the provision of almost universal free primary education, but it still has been unable to create enough of a skilled workforce.

Issues confronting the country

Unemployment at around 20% remains a cause for concern for Botswana. Sluggish progress has been made towards diversifying the country’s economy, away from diamonds and tourism.

Botswana has strong democratic traditions with elections every five years, including its multi-party democratic tradition, but it has to tackle other issues and challenges. Discontent percolates among many who contend that the government is becoming increasingly high-handed. Journalists who investigate allegations of corruption have been arrested and harassed.

Still, Botswana ranks a commendable 39th in the 2020 World Press Freedom Index, released recently by Reporters Without Borders – up five places from 2019. That puts it above developed democratic nations like Italy (41st), South Korea (42nd), Taiwan (43rd) and the US (45th). Malaysia lies in 101st spot.

Cronyism is a frequent complaint, especially in the award of government jobs and tenders. So not all the benefits derived from development and economic growth have filtered down to the masses.

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It is important to close the gap between the rich and the poor. Botswana remains one of the most unequal countries in the world, though the level of inequality has fallen over the years. If it does not resolve this problem, its political stability could be affected.

Cautious optimism

Despite these challenges, Botswana is now in the league of upper middle-income nations. It has a transformation agenda aimed at attaining high-income status by 2036. The economy grew by 4.5% in 2018, but that growth rate was expected to slow to 3.5%, due to weakened global demand for diamonds and harsh droughts in the region.

Like other economies in 2020, Botswana’s economy has been hit due to the coronavirus pandemic. To minimise the impact, the nation has to tackle its challenges while pursuing its socioeconomic goals for the people. 

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Benedict Lopez was director of the Malaysian Investment Development Authority in Stockholm and economics counsellor at the Malaysian embassy there in 2010-2014. He covered all five Nordic countries in the course of his work. An eternal optimist and now an Aliran member, he believes Malaysia can provide its people with the same benefits and privileges found in the Nordic countries - not a far-fetched dream but one that he hopes will be realised in his lifetime
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Ir. Denis Dunstan
Ir. Denis Dunstan
9 Jul 2020 11.53am

Refreshing article and to know the progress achieved being a landlocked country is certainly encouraging.
Would Mr. Lopez have an in clink as to what other industry would be of economic benefit to Botswana apart from tourism and education at this juncture?
What’s the agriculture – food situation at this juncture….how much is imported vs home grown ?
Thank you.

Benedict Morais
8 Jul 2020 3.52pm

Found this an eye opening article on Botswana. I had an accountant friend named David Cropper who was deputy head of the Botswana Accountancy Training Centre for a number of years.He was pleased to serve in that country. However, it is always so good to hear of a success story emerging out of Africa. Hope the country can continue to make further progress.