Some Aspects of Economic Development
by W. Arthur Lewis

An excerpt from the Aggrey-Fraser-Guggisberg memorial lectures at the University of Ghana 1968

Efficient Government

Let me now come to the third problem of modernisation, namely, the need to establish an effective system of public administration which is both honest and efficient. I remarked in an earlier lecture that this administrative weakness is one important feature which distinguishes West Africa both from the communist countries and from Western Europe. Neither an abundance of money nor the best economic policies in the world will solve Africa's problems if the governments waste the money and are unable to administer the policies sensibly.

The British solution of this problem was to distinguish between politics and administration. Politicians became Ministers, and could make general policy decisions, but they must first seek the advice of administrators, and when the decision was made, must leave the carrying out of the policy to administrators. The theory behind this is that politicians are by nature corrupt and inefficient, so their powers should be strictly limited. Civil servants, on the other hand, are recruited from the middle class, and so (according to the theory) they can be trusted to govern honestly and efficiently, subject to supervision by Parliament and public.

The British division of responsibility between Ministers and administrators serves its purpose where politicians and administrators live by different ethical codes; it serves no purpose where the two live by the same code.

In Thailand, for example, the civil servants used to be as corrupt as the politicians, so little would have been gained by dividing responsibility between them on the British pattern. In the Soviet Union, where politicians and administrators both live by the same code, the Marxian version of the Protestant ethic, the distinction between party and civil service is blurred, and not much would be gained by sharpening it. In the British West Indian island of Antigua, the politicians who came into office fifteen years ago were as honest as the administrators, but much more energetic. When the Ministers insisted on influencing matters which the British constitution normally leaves to civil servants the quality of Antigua's administration improved immensely. One cannot assume that civil servants are everywhere better material than the politicians.

West African civil servants have been more honest and efficient than West African politicians, especially at the top levels of the civil service - the bottom levels are notoriously prone to expect a dash. Even the top levels, however, are not quite what they might be, because of what I have already said about middle-class traditions. The urban middle class is a new phenomenon in Africa, not grounded in the Protestant ethic, and much preoccupied with social prestige, money and conspicuous expenditures. We have the same problem in the West Indies where, as head of the University, I was much concerned about the quality of the people we were turning out. The purely academic job we were doing quite well. But the main task of a university is to produce people with high professional standards, which they put before everything else. High professional standards are grounded in high ethical standards, with a strong sense of social responsibility. Our universities tend to neglect this part of the job - end even to dispute that they have any responsibility for the ethics of their students.

We are of course now back with consensus. West Africa will get just as effective administration as it wants to have, whether from its politicians or its civil servants. If, as in so many Latin American countries during the nineteenth century, the general consensus is for plundering the public purse, then the public purse is going to be plundered whatever system of government you may devise. Whereas, if the consensus is to throw the rascals out, a country will have clean and effective government whatever may be the division of responsibilities as between politicians, judges, and civil servants.

This consensus, as I have suggested earlier on, is a function of a sense of purpose. The European politicians came to power to carry out a programme; they were inspired by a vision of a new society. West African politicians have had no programme; modernisation preceded them, and did not depend on them. They threw the British out so that power could pass from European to African hands, and having acquired power they set out to enjoy it. Most African Ministers had no knowledge of the problems of their Ministries, and cared less. Africa's politics will not improve until the politicians spring out of their people's problems, and know what they want to do before they arrive in office.

This is a point where African intellectuals could make a substantial contribution. The politicians come to office ill-informed and without programmes because there has been so little research and discussion of concrete problems. There is plenty of propaganda of a general sort - anti-imperialist, or anti-capitalist or anti-something else. But detailed analysis of the problems now facing the Ministry of Education, or of the decisions which the Minister of Agriculture will have to make within the next six months, or of the problems now bugging the hospital programme is markedly absent from the African political literature. This is the kind of job which the Fabian Society started doing some eighty years ago, and which, with similar work by liberal and conservative groups, has made it possible for men in public life to be well informed about the various decisions which the government has to make. If African intellectuals really want to have a profound influence on African public life, this is what they have to do; study and publish detailed analyses of concrete matters which must at some time go before Parliament. Without this background most African Parliaments are helpless. When the Minister tables a 70-page bill with 200 clauses, how many Members know or can find out enough to be able to criticise it intelligently? For a Member to do this he must have had earlier access to literature which he could study quietly at home. Here lies the intellectual's primary contribution to politics.

Instead of assisting in this way, African intellectuals are easily tempted by the opportunity to gain quick notoriety by issuing pontifical statements on subjects which they have not studied in detail. This is not an African disease; it is a disease of intellectuals all over the world. So well known is this disease that an intellectual has been defined as "a professional man who is making a statement about some subject other than his own", since when a man is talking about his own subject we do not call him an intellectual. We say he is a doctor, or a poet, or a physicist, or whatever he may be. These pronouncements by intellectuals count for nothing in the advanced countries. In Europe or North America the mass of the people are hostile to the intellectuals and pay no attention to anything they say. But in Africa or the West Indies intellectuals are treated with great deference: the masses of the people think, wrongly, that a man with a PH.D. is the highest product of the African intellect: a greater credit to our society than a man who has merely made money or acquired political power. What the intellectuals say seems important, and can therefore be very dangerous. An intellectual in Europe can say anything he likes, almost in fun, because it will not matter. But an intellectual in Africa ought not to open his mouth on public questions unless he has studied all the facts and is quite sure of what he is going to say. The African or West Indian intellectual who pontificates on a public issue which he has not studied in detail matches Lord Baldwin's delineation of the harlot as a person who throughout the ages has exercised power without responsibility. Please note that I am arguing not that African intellectuals should talk less, but, on the contrary, that they should write more, and not just the easy journalistic day-to-day criticism, which was all that we needed in our colonialist past, but writing based on detailed study, and leading to practical constructive proposals. Our intellectuals should try to ensure that any group of politicians which comes to power does so knowing in advance what the main issues are, and what the snags are in each of the possible solutions. Where are the African Fabian Societies or political party research departments?

One effect of publishing good policy analyses would be, as in the British case, to reduce the party political element in administration. It is quite normal in Britain for the conservatives to adopt policies which were first advocated and explored in socialist literature, and for the Labour Party to put into effect measures hitherto identified with the Conservative Party. The closer one gets to detailed analyses of the problems themselves, the more remote is the party element, and the closer one comes to consensus among reasonable people.


Thus when I try to assess the political future of West Africa, and the possibility that modernisation will be completed, everything seems to lead back to consensus, whether it be the prospect of restraining private consumption, or the effort to build a nation, or the need to establish an effective administration. I keep searching for a group of leaders capable of inspiring this consensus. The search is somewhat dispiriting since the current political atmosphere of West Africa is one of extremism rather than of compromise.

I do not here refer so much to tribalism, though that is menacing enough, even to the point of civil war in Nigeria. In that unfortunate country, the educated were even more tribalist than the uneducated, with some of the nastiest incidents occurring inside the universities themselves. Elsewhere the educated are, I think, less tribalist and more nation minded, and one can permit oneself the hope that this awkward corner will eventually be rounded safely. The essential conditions for success are known. Every region must have self-government in local affairs, accompanied by what I have called decentralisation of finance. And every important tribe must be represented in the Cabinet. I have argued elsewhere (in Politics in West Africa) that this requires coalition government, on the continental European pattern, and that the Anglo-American pattern of Government party versus Opposition party is inappropriate and damaging to plural societies, who need political systems which enshrine consensus rather than the Anglo-American idea of conquest. The only kind of democracy which is feasible in West Africa at present is the coalition type of democracy which continental Europe prefers. I need not pursue this line, both because I have already argued it at length, and also because my current emphasis is on willingness to cooperate, and if this willingness exists the institutions will come right.

More troublesome than tribalism is the extremist manner of West African politics, even though this again is not my main worry. I refer to the inflammatory language politicians use, and the way they behave towards each other. It seems impossible to assume that your political opponent is just as gentlemanly and honest as you are, and equally sincere even though on the wrong side. Instead one lives by whipping up mass hatreds, one screams abuse, impugns motives, and practises character assassination. This is the sort of atmosphere in which a thousand people can be imprisoned without trial merely for being on the wrong side; or the atmosphere, as in Northern Nigeria, where the masses can be incited to murder their fellow townsmen in cold blood. The extremist language and tactics of West African politics are incompatible with good government. Of course one understands the origins of this violence; it is a legacy of the movement towards independence. National struggles are always highly emotional. They are conducted by men convinced of the moral superiority of their cause to the point of believing that the end justifies the means. This is compounded, once independence looms in sight, by the struggle which then occurs between the rival nationalist groups themselves, as to which is to inherit the power. After such turbulent events, it takes quite some time for the political temperature to fall to a healthy level.

What bothers me is not so much these outward manifestations of extremism as the fact that West Africa is indeed ripe for extremist politics because of the high level of its disaffection. Economic development has produced numerous groups who are acutely frustrated and willing to follow a leader who promises drastic action to solve all their problems quickly. There are the school leavers, piling up unemployed in the towns. There are the trade unionists, convinced of capitalist exploitation. What the British call the lower middle classes - the school teachers, the junior civil servants and the commercial clerks - have ambitions for personal expenditure way beyond their current incomes. The farmers, overtaxed by the government, and exploited by traders, are looking for a new deal. West Africa is extremely ripe for radical political movements. If democracy prevails in West Africa, it will always return radical political leaders. Here in Ghana some conservatives hope to return to business as it was before 1950, but I am sure that they are mistaken. Only radical leadership has any long-term future in West Africa.

The problem is whether this radicalism will flow into the liberal or into the authoritarian stream. The kind of discontent that I am talking about has always been excellent material for fascist and communist groups. The struggle will be between the liberal radicals on the one hand and the authoritarian radicals on the other. In this kind of struggle the authoritarians have the advantage that they unite, whereas liberals tend to split into factions which fight each other rather than their authoritarian enemy. Ghana has been through all this 'once before, and will go through it again, regrettably, unless those on the liberal side have the sense to unite before it is too late.

Can West Africa produce leaders who are radical enough to win the loyalties of discontented masses, but liberal enough to proceed by compromise rather than by arbitrary force? Who are tribalist enough to win seats in their local constituencies while still retaining the respect and confidence of men from other tribes? Who are clever enough to give something to everybody out of an increasing national income, while at the same tune steadily increasing the share of saving and investment? The answer is of course Yes. West Africans have had long centuries of political experience in highly organised states, long before Britain or France arrived on the scene. The tradition of these states, as we are always reminded was to base action on compromise and conciliation, after extended palaver. All that is needed is to return to this tradition.

It is remarkable what a difference just one or two sensible leaders can make to the whole temper of a country. Take for instance the following riddle. The political temper of seventeenth century Britain was more violent and extremist than anything that has happened recently in West Africa. Anglicans, Puritans and Catholics were at each others' throats. One king was executed and another chased off the throne. An observer writing, say, around the year 1715, after the abortive rebellion of that year, would have described Britain as a violent country where consensus was unthinkable. Yet from the middle of the eighteenth century, just thirty years later, Britain was being held up on the continent as the model of a politically stable society. What had happened in that interval of thirty years? Historians now agree that a major element, though not the only one, was the fact that Sir Robert Walpole became Prime Minister in 1721, and held the office for twenty one years. Walpole was a compromiser, who made it his business to conciliate all the major groups who were fighting each other. For example, the religious dissenters wanted him to repeal the Test Act, which prevented them from holding public office. He would not do this, for fear of starting a huge row with the established church. Instead, every year he passed an Act of Indemnity, which excused those dissenters who had held office dining the preceding year, and this compromise, once established, continued for over a century. Walpole's main objective was to bring peace to his distracted country and bind up its wounds, and in this he succeeded perfectly.

My generation was an ideological generation. We had no use for compromisers. Our heroes were the men wedded to great principles, to socialism, independence, negritude or other great ideas. One consequence of our high emotional level is that ours has been the bloodiest generation since the seventeenth century, killing, or liquidating, as we now say, about 25 million people in the course of 50 years. I think that what West Africa now needs is some first-class compromisers, who will bind up the wounds of their respective countries, and lay solid foundations for growth. They may not win our love or adulation, but they will certainly deserve our gratitude.

By W. Arthur Lewis taken from Some Aspects of Economic Development the Aggrey-Fraser-Guggisberg memorial lectures at the University of Ghana 1968