Thursday, July 05, 2007

GOSS Ministerial Jobs: Activists and Politicians Need Not Apply!

By John A. Akec

Have no opinion and, with luck, you could be invited to become a minister. This seems to be the unwritten motto of many third world ‘politics’, ours is not exception.

Like all other fields of human activity, reward determines behaviour in this kind of politics. This is an example of "classical conditioning" long recognised by the behavioural psychologists keen to discover how to motivate young children to modify their behaviour for the better: Reward any behaviour or work deemed positive or desirable with praise, chocolate, stickers, certificates, and other form of prizes. Discourage, ignore (popular in the US), or punish (popular in Africa) any behaviour considered negative or undesirable. The application of this idea does not stop in the field of education. It has been applied to every kind of industry and activity. In advanced economies, for example, governments levy heavy taxes on activity or trade deemed detrimental to national interests. For instance, congestion charges are applied on motorists using the inner city roads in the rush hours. Taxes are imposed on tobacco and alcohol to prevent more people from taking up the habit. Import tariffs are raised on agricultural products from developing countries to keep farmers in industrialised countries in work.

Likewise, interest rates are raised to discourage borrowing and hence dampen inflation. What is rewarded is reinforced and continues to thrive, whereas what is punished or ignored disappears into obscurity. There are, of course, exceptions to the rule. Besides, you are the one to decide what is "good" and what is "not good". There is no universal agreement.

Humans do respond favourably to classical conditioning that enhances personal well-being, we bend and twist like tropical trees in the high wind that compete to catch a glimpse of the sun on a cloudy day. Sun as we know it is the ultimate source of livelihood (the source of chlorophyll which essential for food manufacture in plants cell).

And paradoxically enough, in the third world, being passive and having no strong opinion about anything is viewed as a virtue. Political activism and being passionate about any cause, no matter how worthy, won’t cut ice with those in the corridor of power. On the contrary, it is dreaded far and wide. Therefore, the wise learns to keep his or her mouth shut. That way, many a door may open ajar.

I am saying this because that is what I see happening time and again such as the recent the reshuffle of ministerial positions in the autonomous government of Southern Sudan (GOSS). More often than not, many people struggle to figure that is who in the new crowd due to prior lack of visibility of some candidates. Visibility comes with activism. Joining a party or liberation movement is a form of activism. But that is only part of it. Other forms of activism include taking part in political campaigns, signing of petitions, speaking out on behalf of the oppressed, defending human rights, demonstrating to support a cause, going to prison for speaking out, etc. How many of the names we often see being appointed to high political office can tick the above boxes? Not many. The reason? Activists cultivate. Non-activists reap the fruit of their sweat. So it seems.

Now, one must be wondering and questioning the case for bemoaning the under representation of political activists in GOSS ministries? The simple answer is that activists are more likely to be committed and dedicated. They are more passionate about what they believe. Most often than not it is about changing peoples lives for the better. And here lies the secret: passionate people can move mountains. Cold and calculated bureaucrats or administrators cannot.

A fellow South Sudanese Martin Abucha wrote recently on an Internet discussion forum:
"What is lacking [in GOSS} is not only technocrats but also visionaries. Some of these ministers have no vision for the ministries they are leading as such, they do not know the skills they need"
With so much that needs achieving in South Sudan, we need more mountain movers, not less; political activists not passive citizens; visionaries not mechanics; leaders not managers.

True, the most important visionary in any government is the President. But President’s work is more likely to succeed if those appointed to ministerial positions are dreamers themselves who have been waiting for an opportunity to see their dreams come true (in form of better living conditions for the citizens, not dreams of being rich).

Apart from activist background (as sign of commitment), ministers should be quick learners who are humble enough to seek good advice from experts and technocrats. They should also be intelligent enough to filter, modify, or over rule the advice they receive if that is going to serve public good.

This last point brings us to the question of choosing advisors. Unfortunately, even Chairman Garang was having problems choosing his advisors. An advisor ought to be somebody who has very good knowledge or experience on a particular activity, policy, or field of knowledge. For instance, an economic professor who has written widely on the effect of globalisation, for example, can be an advisor to his or her government on international trade and World Trade Organisation (WTO) negotiations. A scientist who has been researching climate change can advise the government on sustainable development. A politician who has been successful leading negotiations that brought reconciliation to warring communities can be an advisor to the government on similar conflicts elsewhere. A retired general who has scored victories against hideous enemy in the past can act as a security advisor. And so on. For example, Dr Mustafa Osman, former Sudan foreign minister continues to advise president Bahsir on foreign policy. And while professor Eric Reeves might not have been directly advising President Bush on Darfur, he is hugely influential with current US Administration, and he is often invited to speak at Congressional hearings. I am sure Dr. Reeves might have had limited knowledge on Sudan when he started to write about the North-South conflict many years ago. But through active research and constant scanning and analysis of Sudan news, professor Reeves is now regarded as an authority on Sudan’s conflicts.

Come to South Sudan, and you will hardly identify the criteria on which presidential advisors are selected. It seems to be a good place to "park" influential politicians and "friends" until a suitable job turns up somewhere. This does not give good value for money for Southern Sudan.

Wudu Lado, a South Sudanese activist living in Ottawa, Canada, commented on the Internet recently about this particular aspect of GOSS policy:

"Since politicians are a necessary evil in government, it's incumbent that Goss employs the universities and colleges of South Sudan to drive its development. Thus the government will be able to kill two birds with one stone. Make the universities and colleges earn their keep and the government implement home-grown solutions to its developmental agenda."

Academics have analytic minds. They spend time researching and looking at different social, economic, technological, or environmental models. They know what worked and what did not. They can evaluate policy choices and select optimal solutions, and give good advice. President Bush has a "Council for Economic Advisors." Not just an advisor, but "council" of advisors. He also has advisors on everything. Bush himself is a holder of Harvard’s MBA and a successful oil businessman and a one time governor. He can claim to know a lot. Yet he still needs advice.
Although academics are not the only target for recruitment of advisors, they are not too expensive to pay as they already have jobs. Being advisor can give them prestige and extra morale boost to continue to excel at what they do best. It is showing appreciation of their knowledge. If an academic does not have an immediate answer, he or she can go away and come back with potential solutions in good time.

Note Mr. Lado has used the phrase "Home grown solutions." This conveys two things. First, any nation needs to recognise and use its citizens who have expertise in the same was as buying locally produced goods to maintain jobs and encourage local enterprises. Second, the solutions that worked elsewhere need to be adapted to local situations and thus avoiding "cut and paste" approach or "whole-sale imports" of solutions from elsewhere.

I remember a bitter experience in early 1980s when I spent a substantial amount of money (and effort) during my second year as undergraduate student at university to produce a revision material in mathematics entitled "Inequalities and Linear Programming for Sudan School Certificate." To my greatest disappointment, not many copies were sold. It was a complete financial (and writing) disaster, because even those who personally knew me did not bother to buy a copy despite the fact that I taught myself mathematics and was able to secure a place at university. From this I learnt first hand that many of our own folks are too reluctant to buy homegrown products (thinking they are inferior to exported goods, perhaps). Twenty years on, this situation has not changed much. We still make do barehanded, without regard to expertise that is widely available in our community.

To sum up this article, GOSS is not alone in this game of putting plenty of round pegs in square holes, and square pegs in the round holes. It is happening all over Africa and is not new. The question is: can South Sudan afford to follow the governance modelled that has held back Africa for so long and made it the laughing stock of the world?

This reshuffle might be a sign of trying to improve things. Yet it seems a host of these other issues have not been taken into account when assigning ministerial posts. There is definitely a lot of room for future improvement.

Some of phrases and words used by fellow South Sudanese to describe the recent reshuffle include: "recycling" and "playing a game of musical chairs." Let me add that without putting the above issues into consideration in the future, what we will be doing is nothing more than reorganising deckchairs on the Titanic.

No one is expecting our leaders to get it all right every time. An all-singing, all-dancing GoSS will take time and effort to realise. Yet one way of getting there is through open and positive debate such as current one to identify what has been done well and what needs to improve.


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