Friday, January 23, 2004

So sad. The Economist reports that the leaders of oil-rich Angola have filched or misspent $4.2 million in five years. To put things in perspective, that's one-tenth of Angola's GDP every year, in one of the poorest countries in the world. Apparently half of Angola's children are malnourished, but there are 20 Angolans worth $100m or more. This verges upon the surreal.

The contrast with a country such as Norway could not be greater. Norway also has heaps of oil, but the government has sensibly ploughed the revenue into an offshore investment account, which, I'm told, will generate sufficient interest to more or less run Norway's welfare state indefinitely.

Two countries, two entirely different trajectories. What explains the difference? I'm not sure. The fact that Norway is a well-functioning democracy clearly has a lot to do with it. That lends itself to a culture in which decisions are made for the benefit of the country as a whole. I'm not sure when last Angola had an election but it was evidently some time ago. Jose Eduardo dos Santos has been in power since 1979 and, constitutionally, elections were meant to be held seven years ago but weren't. That Angola has been at war for some time also doesn't help. As the article points out, the government made use of the conflict to justify secrecy about its spending.

So, is there any hope for a country that, on the basis of its natural resources, could, and should, be one of the region's giants? Well, the conflict is over but so far that doesn't seem to have made much difference. The government has, by way of example, undertaken to repair the country's court system -- by 2051. And its still secretive about its spending. There is an election scheduled to be held next year and much, I think, turns on that. Of course, if the same gang are voted back in then don't expect any changes. But, if Angolans look around, realise that life should be better, and express that at the polls, things might just look up. That's assuming, of course, that there are politicians in the opposition who aren't simply bent on getting their hands on the loot and enriching themselves. Given Angola's track record, I'm naturally inclined towards pessimism.

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