Our guest columnists this issue argue that education and infrastructure are the most important sectors for governments to direct their resources towards, even if this means that other sectors, such as health, lose out. By Nana Adowaa Boateng* and Michael Edem Akafia**
It is generally accepted that the role of the state is to mobilise resources, protect and provide citizens with quality social services. What is often contested – most visibly in the US – is the size of the state. A big state (or ‘big government’ as some might say) would be one where governments take on a strong regulatory role and is the lead provider of social goods and services. A small state is one that allows for the market and private sector to deliver most social goods and services while intervening where markets fail.
Many African countries have experimented with the various models. The former has been more prominent in the 1960s and the latter more prominent in the 1990s. What appears to exist now is a highly dysfunctional hybrid: medium-sized states incapable of providing the most basic services to their citizens and a fairly weak market dominated by a private sector that largely retails imported consumer goods rather than playing a transformational role. The continent needs a paradigm shift that is suited to its realities. Real transformation comes at a price. It is not always equitable or democratic but real gains can be made and realised within the space of a generation – several East Asian and South-East Asian countries are cases in point.
The proposal we present here may appear simplistic but it is really that simple. Governments need to scale up investments on just two sectors – education and infrastructure – in order to break the cycle of poverty and fast-track economic transformation.
This does not absolve governments from their responsibilities in providing basic health services, water and sanitation, agricultural support, safety and security, etc. It’s a question of scale. The state should directly, or through the private sector, provide these services at the minimum levels required and at the acceptable quality. A simplistic approach is to maintain current per capita level expenditures in all the non-education and infrastructure sectors for a period of time. This would channel all additional resources towards education and infrastructure. We firmly believe that these two sectors are game changers. Investments in these sectors, even at the expense of other sectoral investments, will place the continent firmly on the path to a structural transformation and a better quality of life.
Let’s reflect some more on the two game changers and why the state needs to take the lead. We will later explain why health is not essential (in relative terms) – as controversial as that might be.