Botswana is known for its impressive economic and political credentials.
It’s one of Africa’s top economic performers. Until the global economic crisis, it had enjoyed yearly growth over the past three decades of between 7% and 10 %. That rivals, if not outpaces, the fast growing “Asian tigers,” according to the World Bank.
The people of Botswana have benefited.
Revenues from beef, financial services and minerals like diamonds and copper fund health care, universal and free education, and other social services. Government revenues have also built physical infrastructure.
According to figures from the Southern Africa Development Community, the country, over half of which is covered by desert, enjoys more than 900 kilometers of rail and 20,000 kilometers of roads.<!-- IMAGE -->
The GDP (Gross Domestic Product) for the country of about two million people is nearly US $14,000 a year per capita on a continent where many Africans earn only a fraction of the amount.
Botswana is one of few countries in post-colonial Africa to maintain a continuous and functioning democracy since independence in 1966.
Its government includes a president and a parliament made up of two chambers, the House of Chiefs and the National Assembly.<!-- IMAGE -->
Voters elect a new National Assembly every five years.
The National Assembly has 63 members, including the President and Attorney General, and 57 legislators elected by majority vote. The majority party appoints four more members to the legislature and also names the president, who in turn draws his or her cabinet from the body.
The 15-member House of Chiefs has advisory power over bills drafted by the legislature. Eight of the positions are inherited from the country’s main tribes, while the rest are indirectly elected.
The ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) has held power since independence. There are over a dozen registered opposition parties, the largest being the Botswana National Front (BNF), and the Botswana Congress Party (BCP).<!-- IMAGE -->
The country has had a peaceful succession of presidents, including Sir Seretse Khama, Dr. Quett Ketumule Masire, Festus Mogae and Seretse Ian Khama.
The strength of tradition
Botswana is among the few African countries not to experience civilian dictatorships or military governments.
Some attribute the country’s commitment to democracy to traditions like village councils called kgotla, where all present have their say and the chief often arbitrates peaceful solutions to problems.
Emblematic of the value of consensus over violence in traditional life is a proverb that dialogue is the highest form of war.
The U.S. Ambassador to Botswana, Stephen Nolan, said another proverb points the responsibility of leaders to their communities: “A chief is a chief through the people.”<!-- IMAGE -->
“It is a privilege but also a responsibility, and a leader has to deliver or that leader will be held accountable,” he said.
“People speak up,” he said, “They are not afraid to ask tough questions or to challenge authority…. A leader commands respect, but has to deliver services and good governance to maintain that respect.”
The councils and other grass roots institutions were allowed to grow even during colonialism by Great Britain, which ruled indirectly through the chiefs. Their values are still embraced by elected politicians today.
A sparkling economy
The landlocked country’s main export continues to be diamonds and other minerals, although Botwana is working to also develop other sectors, including tourism.<!-- IMAGE -->
For many other African countries, including Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, mineral wealth has been a mixed blessing. Revenues are often diverted from the national treasury to the bank accounts of ruling families. As a result, underdevelopment has been the norm for many countries.
But that’s not the case with Botswana.
The watchdog group Transparency International has rated Botswana as one of the continent’s least corrupt countries.
Botswana is among the top four countries in the 2009 Index of African Governance issued by the World Peace Foundation and Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. The survey gives the government high marks in several categories, including rule of law, transparency, judicial independence and efficiency of the courts, property rights, human rights, and free and fair elections.<!-- IMAGE -->
A recent report by the U.N. Economic Commission for Africa cites Botswanan institutions that are effective in curbing political and economic corruption, including the legislature and, judiciary. The report notes that the country enjoys a corruption-free civil service tax and revenue collection agency.
Praise from the U.S.
Botswana remains for U.S. diplomats a model of African potential, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton explained to a group of African parliamentarians in August 2009.<!-- IMAGE -->
“When diamonds were discovered in Botswana, the Botswana Government…decided that they were not going to let outsiders or corrupt insiders exploit what was the natural right to the riches of their country of the people. So they created a legal framework, and they required that any company wishing to do business in the diamond industry had to provide significant revenue for the Government of Botswana,” she said.
She said the government is using the money wisely.
“You can drive anywhere. The roads are in excellent shape. You can drink cool water anywhere, because every time you buy a diamond…, some of that money you spend goes to pave roads in Botswana,” she said.
Open for business
Botswana also enjoys one of Africa’s most robust market economies.
Observers credit that success to a long tradition of respect for property rights, commitment to the rule of law and institutions that have created a system of checks and balances to check corruption.
It’s also one of the continent’s best managed economies.
According to a United Nations University report, “There has been little inflation, no sustainable fiscal deficits or international borrowing based on future diamond revenues, and no expropriations.”
Today, it’s ranked as one of Africa’s most hospitable environments for investors.
The country was one of the top performers in this year’s Index of Economic Freedom published by the Heritage Foundation and Wall Street Journal. The survey measures conditions for investment and growth in 183 countries, including protection of property rights, judicial independence, size of government and freedom from corruption.
Botswana was also noted for the ease in obtaining a business license and for keeping inflation and tax rates low.
Social challenges and health issues
Botswana, however, is facing several challenges.
Democracy activists would like to see Botswana’s opposition parties grow so they can become more competitive in national elections. Opposition parties have won local offices, but never the presidency.<!-- IMAGE -->
Human rights activists criticize the government decision to move the Bush (San) people from their traditional home in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. A law court ruled against the decision, and the government has allowed some of the San to return, but has declined to reopen public utilities such as water wells. While the government says the initial move was done to provide social services, the Bush people and their supporters say it is destroying their traditional way of life.
In health matters, international observers say the country is likely to meet the U.N. Millennium Development Goals, which aim for sharp reductions in poverty, disease, child and maternal mortality, and hunger.
On the other hand, Botswana has been hard hit by HIV/AIDS.
U.N. estimates say the country has one of the continent’s highest prevalence rates for HIV infection in adults -- 24%, or over 300,000 people.<!-- IMAGE -->
In 2008, the United States provided Botswana with nearly $93 million in prevention, treatment and care of the disease as part of the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR).
Ambassador Nolan said over the past five years, the U.S. has contributed over $390 million. That amount, he says, is only a portion of what has gone into the fight. The government of Botswana spends over $200 million per year in its own efforts to combat HIV/AIDS:
“They have a well thought out national plan to combat this disease,” said Nolan. While their infection rates are high, they have seen considerable success particularly in the area of prevention of the HIV virus from mothers to newborn children.”
He said anti-retroviral therapy is available to all who need it.
“It’s a huge commitment of manpower but it flows from a sense of responsibility that the government has to take care of its people and to use resources for doing that,” said Nolan.
Diversifying production, expanding trade
Development experts say the country’s wealth is distributed unevenly, with almost half of the population living below the poverty line. Official unemployment is over 20 percent, although some private economists estimate the number could be double the amount.
Botswana, like other African countries, has been hit by the global economic downturn, and the World Bank estimates the economy will decline by up to 15 % over the next year, after about 3% growth last year.<!-- IMAGE -->
However, economists say the country is likely to be among those to weather the downturn, thanks in part to a year’s worth of expenditure saved from previous surpluses and a low foreign debt.
U.S. Ambassador Steven Nolan said there’s room for Botswana to diversify from an economy dependent largely on diamonds to other natural resources and to tourism.
“Coal reserves there are considerable,” he said, “and they’re looking at expanding the power industry…to export into the South African power pool. That would be a further source of jobs and income for the country.”
USAID has made Botswana a trade hub for southern Africa.
“[USAID] works not only with Botswana,” said Nolan, “but all the countries of SADC (Southern African Development Community) to open doors to the U.S. to markets, suppliers of materials they need and markets for the goods they produce.
“It is also helping SADC members lower barriers between themselves. The real drive of growth in Botswana and the region is intra-SADC trade across borders. That’s where the real potential of economic growth and development lies.”<!-- IMAGE -->
He said Botswana also has the potential to produce more food.
“They have the potential to exploit a lot of land, particularly in the eastern part of the country that’s largely covered by the Kalihari Desert,” said Nolan.
He said the area enjoys a semi-arid climate with sufficient rainfall to grow maize, wheat, millet and other grains. They can also increase the production of chickens and other small livestock.
Nolan said Botswana may never be self-sufficient in food production, but observers note it’s doing well for a country that 40 years ago was among the world’s poorest and least developed.