Can Lesotho survive more development?

In Lesotho, the state and the development industry often see development and macroeconomic growth as synonymous. This simplification represents the easy consensus that neoliberalism has won for a very specific view of how aid should benefit poor people.

This view puts economic growth front and center in conversations about development and assume growth is the driver of poverty alleviation: Economic growth is seen as the antidote to terrorism, the goal of foreign development assistance, and a result of lowered inequality. It also valorizes macroeconomic growth and argues that Lesotho is a success story in the neoliberal ‘Africa Rising’ narrative. This is marginally better than a racist, neocolonial Afro-pessimism that darkly hints that Africans are unable to govern or develop themselves, but not focused on policies that help bring about overall gains in life outcomes for poor people in Lesotho or anywhere else.

US development policy toward Lesotho has always focused on macroeconomic growth. During the Cold War this was the idea behind Modernization Theory—get growth to ‘take off’ and you will keep countries away from communism and move them toward a prosperous, industrial future.

This continues today with two major US development programs in Lesotho, the recently-renewed African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), and the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), both focused on macroeconomic indicators and ‘growth.’ AGOA explicitly links growth and opportunity in its name, while the MCC’s development philosophy is embedded in its motto, “poverty reduction through economic growth.” AGOA does directly benefit some 40,000 Basotho with formal sector employment in textile mills (owned mostly by Chinese, Taiwanese, and South African companies). Most of the textile employees are women, and a sizable number are migrants from the rural areas who were forced to leave their families behind.

The MCC, whose infrastructure improvements are ubiquitous throughout the country, pumped nearly $360 million into Lesotho from 2008 to 2013, with more planned. Much of the MCC’s work has focused on fairly unimpeachable water and health infrastructure projects. Another sizable portion, however, has focused on market-led land reform, which is having negative impacts on some of Lesotho’s vulnerable people.

Despite post-Millennium development programs like MCC and AGOA, most Basotho still live in poverty, and average life expectancy is 49 years. The purchasing power of Basotho has dropped as the South African Rand has cratered recently. Even $360 million in MCC money did not prevent a GNI decline in Lesotho last year. Recently, the IMF told the government to cut spending as revenues are dropping—in other words, even growth is not happening right now.

Lesotho’s economic issues are exacerbated by political and military tensions – an attempted coup in August 2014 happened after nearly two years of targeted violence. In the midst of this unrest, SADC brokered negotiations that brought about early elections in February 2015. Early glimmers of optimism in the electoral results have been snuffed out by the continuing security threats, with the former head of the army killed and the opposition boycotting Parliament, claiming its leaders cannot safely return from South Africa in the current climate. The US, through the American ambassador and other US diplomats, is attempting to leverage aid to pressure the government of Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili to ease political tension in the country. High-ranking State Department officials have made clear that the continuation of AGOA and the MCC in Lesotho is contingent on relative peace and stability in the Mountain Kingdom’s politics and security forces. These threats have heartened the opposition and demoralized government supporters, who all accept the basic premise that aid is political and that those controlling the funds get to call the shots in Lesotho.

As a result, people have lost faith in the ability of government to bring about development, with strong majorities in the latest Afrobarometer survey data saying that government is underperforming in creating jobs, supplying water, ensuring access to adequate food, electricity, and roads. The general perception is that development monies are skimming and funneled to friends, or that companies have to pay bribes to receive tenders for infrastructure contracts. Hence, citizens do not trust the government to deliver on the aid and development they desperately want to see in the country. With such widespread dissatisfaction with the services provided by a government that most identify as corrupt, it is not surprising that only 32% of Basotho are “very satisfied” or “fairly satisfied” with how democracy works in Lesotho, as ordinary citizens perceive development efforts as only benefitting the rich and connected. This perception was recently reinforced by the SADC-run Phumaphi Commission which unearthed unseemly details about how politicians and the security forces spend their time jockeying for power instead of governing.

The philosophy of the MCC and AGOA too often rely on the unproven logic of trickle-down economics and assume competent governance. This primary focus on growth as the driver of poverty reduction is especially troubling when direct cash transfers have proved remarkably effective at providing opportunity and poverty reduction in Lesotho, and providing free health services has dramatically increased the number of women giving birth at hospitals and thus decreasing maternal and infant mortality.

The now-public critique of development only benefiting the well-connected in Lesotho needs to be taken seriously. Addressing this has the potential to help rebuild trust in government and reshape power structures in a deeply unequal society (in addition to making the delivery of aid and development more effective). But even more important to Lesotho’s economic viability than American aid packages are the labor and border policies of South Africa that contrive to keep out Basotho workers. Real “development” would address this border impasse, focus aid on raising household income for the poor and otherwise vulnerable, provide direct health and education services with fees eliminated, and provide an opportunity for substantive poverty reduction and increased life expectancy in Lesotho.

John Aerni-Flessner and Charles Fogelman

Charles Fogelman is a Research Fellow with the Department of Geography at the University of Illinois. He tweets at @charlesfogelman.John Aerni-Flessner is a historian based at Michigan State University. He is Twitter @LesothoJohn

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