Economists have empirically found that societies that allow ‘creative destruction’ grow more productive and richer
Almost all the good things have been said about Prof. Apollo Robin Nsibambi, who died on May 28, 2019 at his home in Kampala. I knew a little bit about Prof. Nsibambi because he is one of a few Ugandans that awestruck me.
I naturally like smart, wise and happy people. Nsibambi was a perfect fit for that combination. He was a free-spirited man. Almost always he was happy and charming, yet very structured in his conceptualisation and deliberation of issues. He also never minced his words when one tried to cross him.
I first met Prof. Nsibambi in person in 2001 at Makerere University at a public lecture hosted by the Faculty of Social Sciences. During the debate Prof. Nsibambi had an intellectual argument with then fledgling academic, Augustus Nuwagaba (now Professor). When the ever vocal and confident Prof. Nuwagaba tried to challenge Nsibambi’s point, he said, “Nuwagaba don’t be puerile, that is not what I taught you.”
The next time I met him again, in person, was at the Government Media Centre in 2006, where Gen. Aronda Nyakairima (another wise and foresighted leader this country lost a few years ago) introduced me to the Professor. “What did you study at university?” he asked me, to which I replied. “Economics.”
Then he gave me free counsel that forever changed my destiny, “Oh great; don’t ever practice economics. Its theoretical underpinnings do not work with precision. Go and unlearn the economic theories and in their place adopt more political economy analysis, for that is what the real world professes.”
Buganda cultural leaders not happy!
Prof. Nsibambi was intellectually overconfident and needless to say a ‘rebel’. That’s what good education does. So when I learnt that he had chosen his eldest daughter as the heir, I wasn’t surprised.
Equally, I was not surprised when the Buganda cultural leaders opposed the idea of a daughter becoming the heir to her father. In old norms of the Baganda a man must have a fellow man as the heir.
Therefore, it is not easy for a traditionalist to even think about the idea of a woman becoming heir to a man, just like the grandparents of these bataka (cultural leaders) could not fathom a woman eating chicken.
In Buganda’s cultural norms a deceased’s daughter can only be the administrator of the father’s estate but not his heir. Since Nsibambi did not have a son, the Buganda elders held the view that the best Nsibambi could do was to pick one of the sons of his brothers to be the heir and his daughter the administrator of his estate.
First the disclaimer; I am a Muganda who was brought up in some deep Kiganda traditions. My mother has been a demagogue servant of the kingdom. She used to narrate to us, with tears rolling down her cheeks, how former President Milton Obote exiled Ssekabaka Muteesa II and his eventual death in the UK. My mother cannot miss a Ttabamiruka (Buganda’s high-level conference) or any function presided over by the king or the Nnabagereka (Buganda’s queen).
What happened in developed countries?
I am, therefore, writing this with all the risks of being misunderstood and ridiculed hanging over my head. Well, what are academics for? Here we go: By choosing his daughter as his heir, Prof. Nsibambi is helping Uganda to kick-start a revolutionary trend that if emulated by other Ugandans will help the country to transform at a faster and more sustained pace into a rich, modern and an all-inclusive society.
I often teach my students of development economics what happened in the developed countries (Western Europe and North America) over the past 200 years that sparked their transformation into today’s most liveable societies.
What happened is this: leaders and people in those countries liberated women by investing in their education and technological innovations.
In particular, technological innovations significantly reduced women’s work in the form of meal preparation, laundry, cleaning, fetching water, and rearing of children. When women got access to gas and electric cookers, washing machines, piped water, and waged house helpers, they spared time to do all that men could do.
Women in Uganda are being killed by lung-cancer not because they are smokers. It is mainly caused by cooking with firewood and/or charcoal. They age with broken backs as a result of washing mountains of clothes with hands in a bending posture.
Culture and development
Women are fetching water from open wells a couple of kilometers away. Needless to say they are rearing so many children without a helper.
African leaders, surprisingly women leaders inclusive, are more obsessed with things that do not matter a lot for most women – political emancipation and often-times misinterpreted ‘gender equality’.
Much of the underdevelopment in African and Asian societies is on account of gender discrimination deeply embedded in cultures and socio-political institutions.
It’s not global conferences on gender or feminist activism that will liberate women from the twinges of patriarchy. It is actions like that of Prof. Nsibambi that will gradually turn the odds in women’s favour.
Culture (defined as shared beliefs and preferences of a society) is more incorporated into sociology and social anthropology than economics. But economists have for a long time studied the idea that culture is a central ingredient of economic development.
Economists have done research that provides both theoretical and empirical evidence showing that countries with a more individualist (independent) culture have more innovations and tend to have higher long-run growth than countries with a more collectivist culture.
Who will ever forget Prof. Nsibambi?
Individualist culture emphasises personal freedom and achievement which are key prerequisites of innovation. Collectivism, on the other hand, encourages conformity and discourages individuals from standing out.
Intuitively, people in an individualist culture have not only a monetary reward from innovation but also a social status reward. All other things being equal, who will ever forget Prof. Nsibambi?
Many researchers claim that Africans are poor because among other factors (such as lack a good work ethic, belief in witchcraft and magic etc.) we resist new technologies and change.
Dambisa Moyo, one of the smartest African women you will come across, thinks Africans are culturally, mentally, and physically innately different. That somehow deeply embedded in our psyche is an inability to embrace development and improve our own lives without foreign guidance and help.
True, societies inherit their culture over a long historical period and it would be hopeless, and probably destructive, to try to impose cultural change on them. Admittedly we must embrace our cultural heritage and build institutions appropriate to this heritage.
All said, it is equally useful for us to understand that world inequalities are partly because of social norms related to cultures that have failed to embrace change.
What is ‘creative destruction’?
There is a man named Joseph Schumpeter who lived between 1883 and 1950. He taught economics at Harvard University in the 1930s and ‘40s. In 1942, Schumpeter wrote a book “Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy” in which he coined a seemingly paradoxical term “creative destruction.”
Although by creative destruction Schumpeter set out to describe the “process of industrial change that incessantly destroys the old structure and creates a new one”, he was actually also referring to the painful but highly rewarding ability of a society to change its norms and traditions in a manner that is creative.
He described capitalism as “the perennial gale of creative destruction,” recognising that good often comes from turmoil. It is not easy to eat food you are not used to, let alone to adopt a new religion different from the one you were born and nurtured into.
That is why many Christians find Islamic teachings and practices weird and the vice versa. The odds are even tighter in societies that institutionalise religion into law, such as countries governed under Sharia Law.
Economists have empirically found that over time, societies that allow ‘creative destruction’ (in everything) grow more productive and richer; their citizens see the benefits of new and better products and ideas, better jobs, higher living standards, and ultimately live longer and happier lives.
What needs to be done?
Any attempts to resist or even soften the harsher aspects of creative destruction by trying to preserve out-of-date ideas or norms, often leads to stagnation and decline, short-circuiting the march to progress.
For years, Uganda has tried all sorts of policies and laws to propel growth and development. Yet progress tends to be episodic with bouts of reversals of fortune. We think the problem is bad leaders, bad politics and insecurity; huge public debt; high population growth; regional imbalance, name it. Recently, the President started a campaign he codenamed “indisciplined inheritance practices” which according to him is the main cause of land fragmentation.
Most of these are symptoms of a disease embedded in our ‘culture of poverty’ which manifests itself in the form of institutional arrangements biased on patriarchy. I haven’t seen a society with all girls in school, women having equal rights as men over everything, and with secure property rights, that is not richer, happier, healthier and livable. Not a single one. I have also not seen any without those attributes that is not poor.
Dear Ugandan leaders if you want to develop Uganda outlaw cultural norms that perpetuate the following: girls out of school, preserving the position of father’s heir for boys, denying girls/women the right to inherit their parents’ estate, dowry which puts a transactional connotation to marriage, and so on and so forth.
Rest in eternal peace Prof. Nsibambi. Like I tweeted the day you passed on, you were the true definiation of a Professor. Your souls must already be in heaven; you always kept time.
I now add one more thing; Prof. Nsibambi has served humanity to the fullest for he will forever be remembered as arguably the first monarchist to break the socially-constructed chains of human/gender discrimination – preserving the position of heir to the father (family head) for men. He has demonstrated that these “norms” may be changed and the sky stays above the earth, and the latter becomes a better place for us all.