Extreme Poverty in Botswana
The nation of Botswana, home to approximately 2.3 million people, has undergone an amazing change over the past three decades, transforming from an impoverished nation to one of the wealthiest nations in sub-Saharan Africa. While many of its neighbors have lagged behind—in fact, the United Nations classifies sub-Saharan Africa as the poorest region in the world—Botswana reduced the percentage of its population living on less than $1.90 a day from 29.8% between 2002-2003 to 16.1% between 2015-2016. What are the secrets to success in combatting extreme poverty in Botswana that have allowed it to prosper relative to its neighboring African nations?

A Brief Look at the History of Botswana

Botswana gained its independence from Great Britain in 1966 and quickly adopted a parliamentary constitutional republic. In fact, Botswana is the oldest democracy on the continent, though one party—the Botswana Democratic Party—has dominated elections since the adoption of the country’s constitution. Compared to its neighbors, Botswana began with a commitment to free enterprise, rule of law and individual liberties. Its first president, Seretse Khama, had a devotion to fighting corruption, which was critical to Botswana’s success.

To fight extreme poverty in Botswana, the country invested in four critical pillars: public institutions, education, economic diversification and women’s rights.

4 Pillars to Tackling Extreme Poverty in Botswana

  1. One of the most remarkable aspects of Botswana is its extraordinarily low levels of corruption as a result of institutional checks and balances. According to the 2017 Corruption Perception Index, Botswana was the least corrupt nation in Africa, with its score twice as high as the average sub-Saharan African nation. Botswana is one of only a handful of nations that outperform parts of Western Europe, with its score outpacing Spain in 2018. This is as a result of institutional checks and balances, including the Corruption and Economic Crime Act of 1994 and the development of the Directorate on Corruption and Economic Crime, an agency tasked with investigating and preventing corruption. As a resource-rich state known for diamond mining, Botswana was careful to prevent government employees from benefiting from what the nation’s first president deemed public resources.
  2. Botswana invests a considerable percentage of its GDP in education; this percentage was more than 20% in 2009. Botswana’s investment in education translated to a literacy rate of 87% in 2019, compared to a regional average of 65%. High rates of education have contributed to Botswana’s increased economic diversification and strong political stability, making the nation one of the more attractive places to do business in Africa.
  3. Smart economic development has contributed to Botswana’s high living standards and low corruption levels, placing it ahead of its peers. Botswana derived much of its early economic growth from diamond extraction which, among other exports, accounts for approximately 40% of Botswana’s GDP composition by end-use. However, consistent investment in other sectors of the economy has remained a strategy for the ruling party, and the government has increasingly diversified its economy towards the service sector and tourism jobs. Investment in conservation and wildlife has grown the tourism industry to approximately 14% of Botswana’s GDP,  nearly doubling since 1999. Remarkably, Botswana’s commitment to managing its domestic ecosystems allowed it to sign one of the first “debt-for-nature” agreements with the United States, which forgave more than $8 million in debt in exchange for the continued protection of the Okavango Delta and tropical forests.
  4. In addition to the high rates of women’s education and literacy, Botswana remains committed to a strong National Family Planning Policy and healthcare service. Botswana has experienced a rapid decline in fertility, according to the CIA World Factbook, with the total fertility rate falling from over five children per woman in the 1980s to 2.42 in 2021. Easy access to contraception and above-average rural and urban access to healthcare facilities have not only contributed to a decline in fertility but emboldened women’s rights and improved standards of living.

Botswana is by no means a perfect nation. It has extremely high rates of HIV/AIDS, like many of its African peers, and its single-party government has been criticized by some international organizations for suppressing competition. However, decades of consistent improvement in education and women’s rights, increased economic diversification, high levels of economic freedom and a commitment to fighting corruption have made Botswana the most prosperous nation in sub-Saharan Africa and a model for its peers.

– Saarthak Madan
Photo: Flickr

Botswana's Success
Botswana is a landlocked country with an economy heavily based in the mining industry, having discovered diamonds around the time of independence. This subsequently kickstarted a parting from its agricultural and farming sectors. Botswana also depends on foreign trade with countries such as South Africa and Mozambique. Throughout the past 40 years, Botswana’s success has been startling in the face of the underdevelopment that often plagues other African nations. From 1985 to 1994, the number of impoverished people decreased by 17 percent and by 1990, child mortality rates had dropped from 18 percent to 4.5 percent for Africa as a whole.

Maintaining Progress

Many have largely viewed Botswana’s success as a shining star in the narrative of post-colonial Africa, and rightfully so. Since its independence in the 1970s, Botswana has maintained democratic institutions, a relatively stable and growing economy, inclusive social constructions and avoided the violence of civil war that has plagued its neighbors for decades. This country exemplifies the importance of establishing inclusive institutions to positively affect development through policies that aim to hold its leaders accountable and remain based in a market economy.

As an example of hope in an otherwise tumultuous sub-Saharan Africa, Botswana’s success is somewhat due to luck and chance. Historically, the discovery of diamonds and other reserves of natural resources has resulted in high levels of corruption and economic instability. Botswana instead had leaders who chose to allocate profits from the diamond sector to fund government programming. The country was able to rewrite its story after colonial rule and avoided the strife that often comes out of independence. It is difficult to find objective reasons as to why Botswana’s success has been so largely beneficial when the events that led to prosperity seem circumstantial.

Botswana’s Influence and Place

Some often raise questions about the reasoning behind Botswana’s growth and the answers to these mostly point to the critical instance of having good leaders working to develop a system of government that thrives on government accountability; something that many other African governments have not yet achieved. The emphasis on Botswana as a model for African success is blatant and justified, however, it is important that while it has been widely profitable and stable, the establishment of institutions comes with problems. Unemployment rates are high due to a disparity between the number of educated people and jobs available and HIV/AIDS rates are among the highest in the world. Additionally, while the economy has been doing well, it is not diversified.

Botswana’s success is a model for the possible future for sub-Saharan Africa. To assume that other countries currently transitioning from the post-colonial rule are the same in establishment and practice would be to discount individual differences that differing cultural and societal norms display. But, Botswana is an exception, and there is something to gain from discussing and analyzing its place as a nation in Africa. The success story of this country is an example of hope for a better future for other African countries struggling after extractive colonial rule and presents an opportunity to see Botswana as an example of a nation in the developing world.

Jessica Ball
Photo: Pixabay