Make meritocracy the equaliser

Pedestrians

Pedestrians crossing Haile Selassie Avenue in Nairobi in this picture taken on July 27, 2020.

Photo credit: Diana Ngila | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Meritocratic countries are governed by the best and the brightest and experience the highest levels of living standards..
  • In contrast, the countries that are mired in economic morass are encumbered by patronage, nepotism, cronyism, corruption and incompetence.

Since the British sociologist Michael Young first used the term in 1958, there has been a growing interest around the world in meritocracy as a system and ideology.

In a meritocratic society, there is a leveling of the playing ground and everybody has an equal chance to advance based on qualifications, talent and efforts regardless of their gender, tribe, class, political connections and other non-merit factors.

Meritocratic countries, such as Singapore, are governed by the best and the brightest and experience the highest levels of living standards, economic wellbeing and shared prosperity. In contrast, the countries that are mired in economic morass are encumbered by patronage, nepotism, cronyism, corruption and incompetence.

Kenya’s unemployment and underemployment levels are trending towards new levels of permanent hopelessness. Ordinarily, the government should have gathered by now its deep thinkers, intellectuals and strategists to brainstorm on how to tackle this challenge. But these are not ordinary times, and so I would venture to proffer unsolicited suggestions. 

Faced with a glut of workers, as is the case, public and private sectors have an opportunity to embrace competition and transparency and set clear qualifications for vacancies. In the absence of such purposeful steps, the country risks sliding into elitism, where new employment opportunities and promotions become available to a privileged few — largely those of a particular pedigree or with deep political connections.

Virtually all public sector institutions, such as state universities and parastatals, suffer from poor leadership and mismanagement. This crisis manifests itself in the form of fiscal imprudence and the looting of public resources by unqualified yet politically connected stewards.

Whereas this problem is ubiquitous and worsening, political leaders are engaged in deal making around narrow interests, which would ultimately mainstream elitism and rent seeking. Pursuing such a path will, no doubt, entrench and exacerbate inequality by denying opportunities to qualified candidates from poor families and marginalised communities.

This would accentuate the country’s mismatch of its most precious resources — labour — and accelerate brain drain, worsening the situation.

Africa has qualified and talented individuals who can steer it to greater heights yet lack of political goodwill continues to be a major impediment to that. Across the continent, a handful of political elites and their lieutenants strive to preserve their privileged status by practising nepotism and crony capitalism. In the end, their ill-educated and unqualified appointees have done nothing but bankrupt state enterprises. 

Tremendous results

Nepotism at the county level puts local public institutions — such as schools and dispensaries — at the risk of being run into the ground as well.

Replacing a dysfunctional recruitment system that is based on nepotism, tribalism and cronyism with meritocracy can yield tremendous results and benefits. Placing value on qualifications and talent often brings pride, prestige and efficiency to the workplace. Furthermore, a merit-based reward system can be a catalyst for self-improvement, hard work, innovation and productivity. 

UNDP states that government bureaucracy characterised by meritocratic recruitment, along with predictable, rewarding career ladders, are associated with higher economic growth. And for a country that is synonymous with corruption, like ours, meritocracy reduces graft by placing a barrier between bureaucrats and politicians.

It also promotes equality and fairness and encourages individuals to do their best to achieve personal and societal goals.

It is not enough for Africa to merely seek financial development cooperation with its traditional and emerging partners. Hard infrastructure — like roads, railways and ports — is necessary but insufficient in achieving sustainable development. Africa must also seek soft infrastructure to help it think strategically, update its processes and optimise actions. 

Widely recognised as the first country to introduce meritocratic management in the public sector, China can showcase and advance this model with its African partners. But instead of waiting for the arrival of these benevolent outsiders, Africa should proactively seek out from within it those that have much to offer in this space.

Multilateral organisations that have a permanent and significant footprint in African, and other developing countries — like UNDP, the World Bank and IMF — can advance their cause by brokering such exchanges. African leaders must emulate Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founding father and first prime minister, who declared: “We must have a system that enables the best man (and woman) and the most suitable to go into the job that needs them”.

Mr Chesoli is a New York-based development economist and global policy expert. kenchesoli@gmail.com.

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