Filling in the incentive void of democracy

It’s clear that democratization is not the panacea for the problems of developing countries. Elected leaders even lack some of the incentives for good leadership that unelected leaders have, since their terms are limited and their rule is a short saga in the history books. Problems that demand solutions that exceed the term of the elected executive can easily be ignored. Sudanese-born telecommunications billionaire Mo Ibrahim seems to have have a solution to this: his own Mo Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership. An African himself, it is easy to see that Ibrahim wants to to see his continent prosper. For maximum impact, he has made a monetary surgical strike: paying the leaders themselves to actually care about their country’s prosperity and future. A generous sum, $5 million US plus a $200,000 US yearly payment, is awarded to leaders of African nations who have recently left office, and who:

  • Have developed their countries, lifted people out of poverty and paved the way for sustainable and equitable prosperity
  • Are exceptional role models for the continent
  • Ensure that Africa continues to benefit from the experience and expertise of exceptional leaders when they leave national office, by enabling them to continue in other public roles on the continent

All of these criteria are apparently geared towards incentivizing leadership that is focused on the good to come after the statesman leaves office. Kicking the can down the road, which is de rigeur for elected officials, is no longer possible with the independent oversight of the Ibrahim Foundation. Politicians normally serve the interests of their parties or themselves. In poor countries governments are at their most predatory, being, as Mark Lutter pointed out, the major culprit behind third world squalor. Spinning, rhetoric, and political grandstanding, which work on the voting public, presumably do not work for the award committee of the Ibrahim Foundation, which is entrusted with handling millions upon millions of dollars.

What exactly is the subtext of this award? It is that political systems, on their own, are not built to act in the interest of the nations that they control. The much vaunted democratic political system has not brought African nations to the promised land. So why does the Foundation require that leaders who receive the award to be democratically elected? To the naive, this might be seen as an encouragement of democratic leadership, which is certainly a better alternative to dictatorship. I would guess that Ibrahim also wants to in fact fix democracy and all its misplaced incentives, having the requirement of a democratic election in order pinpoint these problems, and using his wealth to tip the scales from favoring government to favoring society.

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