Post from Tanzania: Why it doesn’t work

We’ve been staying on a farm in the Usumbara Mountains above Lushoto for a few nights. For the past seven years, it’s been run by a Swede and a South African from the German Lutheran church. Over dinner last night, the inevitable question arose: Why doesn’t Tanzania work?

It’s certainly something that this couple has had plenty of time to consider as both have worked on and off in different parts of Africa their whole lives. Tanzania has provided them with constant power cuts and water shortages, impossible barriers to food processing and business, shocking road accidents, a substandard healthcare system – and all under a single government that has ruled with an overwhelming majority for almost fifty years.

The farmer’s theory on why Tanzania doesn’t work is this: the Tanzanian government is not answerable to its people.

Tanzanian politicians are not paid by Tanzanian citizens. Over 70% of Tanzanian workers are in informal employment, which means they operate in a cash economy. This means no income tax. The Tanzanian government gets the overwhelming majority of its funds from international donors, all of whom impose certain conditions on the spending of their money. At a grassroots level, the Tanzanian’s know that decisions made by their politicians about the future of their country will be based on the wishes of those who pay their wages – that is, by everyone except regular Tanzanians.

Last week one of our guides mentioned that he wasn’t going to bother voting. There are too many difficulties on election day: the systems in place at polling stations don’t work and he hinted at intimidation and violence. And besides, he said, the ruling party will win anyway so what’s the point? As someone who believes in the power of the collective voice, I was heartbroken to hear this. Why wouldn’t a people rise up against an ineffectual government? Surely there is someone, somewhere in Tanzania who can create a serious opposition party that will address the needs of its people?

But the farmer’s point was that the political parties don’t have a direct connection to the needs of its people. Tanzanians don’t feel like the government truly represents them; rather, the government acts in a way that will satisfy NGOs, the World Bank and donors of foreign aid.

At this point, as she poured her third drink, the farmer’s wife spoke up. It’s not just from outside, she said. She described a uniquely Tanzanian culture of patronage. She explained that each elected representative feels an obligation to their staff and colleagues, and to their respective families. She described how officials move ineffectual and corrupt staff from office to office so as to ensure them the pay cheque that feeds their families rather than expel them from their jobs. Or how ministers do deals and make agreements with colleagues and various members of the business community they feel obliged to help succeed. And off course, this doesn’t necessarily equate to what is best for their electorate.

Growing up, I lost count of how many times my dad complained over dinner about something or other being ‘a waste of my taxpayer’s dollars’. Governments in Australia rise and fall based on how they perform and which voters they piss off. Ultimately, for all the flaws in the Australian political process, it is the case that the people employ their leaders and that, equally, the people can give their leaders the sack. But in Tanzania, if the farmer and his wife are right, it makes complete sense that a voter would choose to stay at home with their family rather than fight the inefficiencies and frustrations of the polling booth, only to cast a vote for a government that has more to lose by ignoring its employers and colleagues than it does by ignoring its people.

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