17 APRIL 2013
Dr Ismail Lagardien – leader.co.za
It is often easy to become pessimistic, or even fatalistic, about South Africa. It is also hard to escape the fact that there are, sometimes, valid reasons for such pessimism and fatalism…
What seems exceedingly difficult is to plan for and (actually) establish a better, more prosperous and stable country in which there is a high level of trust among citizens. The National Planning Commission (NPC) report is the latest, the most ambitious and, arguably, the most coherent and widely accepted strategy to help establish such a country. After the National Development Plan 2030 was presented to the president and Parliament on 15 August, the commission received plaudits and fairly widespread support for its work. The plan, it would appear, is solid. Yet, it is hard to shake the sense that drawing up the plan, consulting thousands of people in hundreds of engagements and interactions over several months, was the easy part. Given successive false starts and other clever, but sometimes anaemic, policy proposals over the past 18 years, unless there is intellectual and institutional continuity, the NDP, too, may yet fail.
A review of best practice around the world reveals that implementing a national development plan requires decisive leadership, deep insights into how the world and particularly global capitalism work (what policy space exists), coherence, stability and the humility to learn from others. What happens over the next few months could, therefore, prove decisive in the life and work of the NPC and for the future of the country.
No amount of obfuscation or fudging can conceal two important questions about the commission and the NDP – the future institutional form of the NPC, and where it will be situated. In both cases, best practice around the world suggests that the planning function in government must become a formal, permanent institutional body of the state, and that it should be steered, or at least overseen, from the highest office in the land, by the most competent elected officials and public servants. At present, the NPC is an advisory body created by President Jacob Zuma, and its term expires in 2015. The commissioners are part time and the secretariat is significantly understaffed and under-resourced. That the plan was pulled together, published and presented to South Africa on the dates and in the format(s) that were promised was nothing short of a miracle. What happens in the next six months is probably more important than the work that the NPC has done over the past two years. To even meet the objectives in the NDP halfway, the commission requires capable leadership, intellectual and institutional continuity, stability and better-than-adequate resources. South Africa can learn a lot from the planning functions of other countries.
The planning function in governance
Planning is increasingly considered vital for successful statecraft and governance, more recently because of the successes of China, India, Brazil and Malaysia, among others. While planning is considered to be a function of ‘developing countries’ – as Gang Zhang of the OECD told me earlier this year – some of the most developed countries in the world have established various permutations of planning functions. One research project by the Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis in the United States lists at least 70 bodies responsible for planning in countries around the world. Not all these functions are situated in specific ministries dedicated exclusively to planning. In some countries, the planning functions are coupled with ministries or departments of finance, trade, statistics or budget management. Among several others, Belgium has a Federal Planning Bureau; Brazil has a Ministry of Planning, Budget and Management; Ghana has a Ministry of Finance and Economic Planning; Hong Kong has a Central Planning Department; India has a Planning Commission; the Netherlands has a Social and Cultural Planning Office and, in the US, the planning function is situated in the Bureau of Economic Analysis.
Two things that stand out from almost all the examples is that the planning function in each country is located in the office of the president or prime minister – or as close to the centre of government as it can be. In India, the prime minister chairs the planning commission. In Malaysia, the planning function is the responsibility of a cabinet minister in the prime minister’s office. In almost every case, given the coupling of planning with management, budget and the economy, planning is integrated in a type of nested hierarchy in which all component elements converge on a single objective – the protection and advancement of the country’s national interests, regardless of how these interests may be defined. National planning becomes, therefore, the institutional driving force of policymaking (while specific departments maintain their core functions), monitoring and evaluation of implementation and performance.
The NPC is, at present, only an advisory body in the Presidency. Politically and institutionally the NPC will, however, remain relatively weak, because it is not a government department, and because there is, for now, no clarity about its future – beyond the fact that the president gave it a five-year term and that the term expires in three years. That it is led by some of the most intelligent and respected people in the country is beyond doubt; what can be questioned is whether the political courage exists to follow best practice in the world, and place the commission in a position of authority and provide it with resources. One outcome of this is that the commission’s work becomes interwoven with that of national, provincial and local government departments.
Overcoming political bewailed political inertia
The creation of the NPC was a bold and decisive move by the president. Deeper retreat into inertia, amid the current phase of uncertainty, can only result in a significant loss in credibility on the part of the government and lock the country into a vicious cycle of unemployment, poverty and inequality. In political economy, there is an understanding that greater transparency (the typical reference is to policies like inflation targeting) ensures credibility and effectiveness in policymaking and implementation. As things stand, the NPC, having submitted to the government and the nation a plan to lead the country towards greater prosperity, equality and stability, through inclusive growth and an expansive economy, appears to be at a loose end – notwithstanding the outstanding work that has been done by the commission.
When read and understood, intertextually (to borrow a phrase) with, especially, the constitution and with successive policies, the NDP is a solid basis for the expansion of the economy to make it more labour-absorptive, and to spread prosperity gains more equitably across society. While the plan makes specific reference to engaged and active citizenry and to the need for social cohesion, the people have spoken, as it were, and endorsed the plan. It is, for now, the political leadership that seem locked in inertia when it comes to giving effect to the NDP. The commission needs to be strengthened by giving it the best leadership and resources that are available in the country – and consolidating its work and place in the Presidency. South Africa must overcome the much-bewailed inertia that besets political decision-making and the implementation of otherwise sound policies. Pessimism has become widely embedded in our political culture.
Pessimism about South Africa’s future should, however, not become a fig leaf for inertia. With the NDP, the commission has overcome this tendency towards inertia. While I do not speak on behalf of the NPC (I write this in my private capacity as a political economist with a deep commitment to creating a better future for our country), I can say, unequivocally, that the NDP is a plan to build a better future for all South Africans. We may never have the society that we seek for South Africa, but that does not mean we should stop fighting for it; for now, the National Planning Commission is our best hope. The country’s political leadership must shore up the institutional basis of the commission. We can do this.