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Jodi Liss: Omar Bongo and the Big Vegetables

Every student of International Relations Theory 101 gets treated to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Parable of the Stag Hunt. You remember the tale: two hunters are sent into the woods looking for a stag to feed their starving village. To bag the animal, they must independently choose to work together or each can choose to snare a rabbit for themselves (which can be accomplished alone). In the end, they choose the lesser task: feasting as the villagers starve, foregoing the uncertain rewards of cooperation for more immediate, assured ends. Rousseau’s parable illustrates the all-too-prevalent triumph of self-interest over group loyalty. But it's also a perfect metaphor for corruption. Omar Bongo, the president of Gabon died last week. Few in the West had heard of him until his obituary appeared on the front page of The New York Times. Gabon is a small but oil-rich country on the Atlantic coast of Africa, and Bongo, who ruled for 41 years, was one of the smoother, most clever oil despots the world has ever seen. He sustained his power not by overt violence but by co-opting enemies and, allegedly, running a network of spies and informants. Gabon is a former French colony, and Bongo played on that nation's guilt and need for oil to keep in the West's good books. He and his family amassed a fortune on what should have been a civil servant’s salary. No one was fooled. Everyone knows Bongo’s story is scarcely unique in the developing world. Yet what Omar Bongo did is almost beside the point—it’s what he didn’t do in 41 years that matters. Simply put, he didn’t bother to create a functioning country. For years, we've heard the truism that developing countries needed Western aid to build successful economies. But has it worked? Despite billions in loans and gifts to developing nations, poverty is still rampant, especially in Africa. Since the beginning of the Cold War, international aid was often a fig leaf for payoffs and bribes to dictators to keep them in one camp or another. Rarely did the money spent trickle down to the people who needed it most. Economists now debate whether the West should continue to lend or give aid money to developing countries in the hopes that it will eventually help matters, or whether it just abets corruption and makes things worse. But dozens of countries haven’t truly needed aid.... Like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, they've been wearing ruby slippers all along—they've always had the power to go wherever they wished. Many countries in Africa have abundant natural resources from which they should be able to prosper, or at least improve the lives of their citizens. But while billions of dollars have poured into their coffers in exchange for metals, minerals, oil, and gas, few of these rewards have gone to building long-term infrastructure. As in the stag hunt, those with access fall prey to selfish motives and leave the rest to fend for themselves. The country as a whole never prospers. Thus, many developing countries that once held so much promise have only developed into shell states, hard on the outside (with the trappings of borders, an army, and a seat at the United Nations), but are jellyfish on the inside—all tentacles, no vertebrae. Time and again, corruption is simply easier than the hard work of crafting a functioning economy, building domestic infrastructure, and creating a viable political system that strives toward realizing international norms. Most of Africa's "Big Men" (of which Bongo, notwithstanding his 4' 11" frame, was a proud member) got there by political machinations, not technocratic skill. They doled out vast sums of money to patronage webs of cronies and hangers-on to keep nascent threats under control. Meanwhile, they amassed fortunes, sipping pink champagne while their people starved, vacationing on the French Riviera, and living off the fat of the land. The journalist Michaela Wrong, author of In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz, witnessed the dying days of Mobutu Sese Seko’s reign as kleptocrat of Zaire, and recounts a wonderful moniker given to his corrupt cronies—The Big Vegetables. People in international relations like to suggest that resource-poor countries such as the Asian Tigers found a more successful path to development because the very scarcity of assets forced them to be more self-reliant. Indeed, Asia didn’t become rich because it was resource-poor or because it banked on industrialization. Rather, prosperity came because the Asian Tigers installed functioning governments (some of which were certainly repressive on political freedoms) that actively developed detailed and thoughtful policies that prioritized sound economic development. Their leaders' sole aims weren't to game the system for their own ends (although many became rich in the process). It wasn’t that they couldn’t take an easy way (there’s always enough money for payoffs) but that they chose not to, largely for political reasons. Admittedly, the margin of failure was thinner—they didn’t have a cash cow to ceaselessly milk. The secret of successful resource- and aid-rich countries is not much of a secret at all. Leadership saw on the horizon a viable goal—for the whole country—and successfully steered the ship of state towards it. Once they got there, they kept going. They didn’t drop anchor, turn back, or get careless. They caught the rabbit and then also went and shot the stag. Diamond-rich Botswana is, sadly, one of the few African examples. The free-spending days of international aid are ending. Money is either disappearing or coming with tight strings attached. These days, poor countries that have failed to invest in domestic industries are desperately seeking to exploit what natural resources they have and sell the assets to China or the United States. But these nations must start not by figuring how they will spend the money, but by determining which direction they want to take the country and how to get there. No developing country will ever get anywhere as long as it has lousy governance—and by that I mean at the top, not some struggling mid-level civil servant. Developing nations need to have strong leadership first; everything else will follow. If they don't, the ideological heirs of Omar Bongo will always be with us. Jodi Liss is a former consultant for the United Nations, the United Nations Development Programme, and UNICEF. She has worked on the “Lessons From Rwanda” outreach project and the Post-Conflict Economic Recovery report. Her article, “Making Monetary Mischief: Using Currency as a Weapon,” appeared in the winter 2007-08 issue of World Policy Journal.

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