55. Of Size and Real Power

Kap Kirwok

9th November 2013

In the past several weeks, I have been listening more keenly to Tanzania talk radio. It is fascinating. Aside from the usual social chitchat, the latest hot topic for morning talk radio is the ‘marginalisation and isolation’ of Tanzania by Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda – the so-called coalition of the willing intent on accelerating some aspects of East African integration. And the topic has been getting hotter by the day. The Kiswahili is pretty – as usual – but the content can sometimes feel like hot coals. One caller was particularly caustic: “It is not the coalition of the willing; it is the coalition of the killers. Good riddance. ” Another caller argued that each of the three presidents – Uhuru, Kagame, and Museveni – had blood on their hands or had been accused of killing. “One is looting D.R. Congo; another is a serial election rigger who thinks he can be the first president of East Africa; while another is an accused murderer who won elections through ethnic division.” Ouch! It actually sounds worse when you hear it said in Kiswahili. Words like kabwela (hypocrites), fisi (hyena) and nyoka (snake) are used liberally in reference to the three countries. There are other routine insults more painful to publish. On social media, commentators from Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda haul their share of insults against Tanzania. It is ugly.

All of this is unfortunate and reveals a level of immaturity that is disheartening. The public brouhaha involving politicians and citizens on this matter is a spectacle that cries out for leadership.

But what I found interesting in Tanzanian talk-radio is a parallel sub-theme, and it is this: “We are larger in size than all the other four countries added together. We also have the most resources including the largest population. They cannot do without us but we can do without them.”

It is what you may call the ‘bigger is better’ creed. I am sure it has fascinating psychological effects on those who believe it. But, how much does land size (and population) really matter? Does size always translate into real multidimensional power and success?

It is an interesting question, and one whose answer, on the face of it, is self-evident. Until you take a closer look – as many economists have done.

Of course, it can be proved, empirically, that the cost per population of certain public goods – for defence, infrastructure, public health, national currency and financial systems, to name a few – are lower in larger countries because of the wider taxpayer base. It can also be observed anecdotally that the larger a country is in demographic and economic terms, the less likely it will be invaded successfully by a foreign aggressor. And yet it is also true that the larger the size of a country, the more likely (and easier) it is to foment and sustain dissent, and the more difficult it is for the centre to hold onto the periphery! Size, it turns out, comes with costs that offset its benefits.

In fact many studies have shown that, in terms of riches per capita, size does not really matter. If anything, a cursory review of the top ten ‘richest’ countries in the world, shows that only four have populations above 1 million. And, of the top ten largest countries by population, only the United States and Japan can be considered rich. When you consider the high number of small countries that are in the league of rich nations, you might even say the dominant narrative is “small is beautiful.”

Consider just two examples: Israel and Singapore.

At only 20,770 square kilometres, Israel is small; it is actually smaller than Rwanda, East Africa’s tiniest country, whose land size is only 26,338 square kilometres. By land size, Israel is 45 times smaller than Tanzania. In population, it is about seven times smaller. And yet, in terms of the size of the economy, it is about 10 times bigger or 56 times in per capita terms.

Singapore’s case is even more dramatic. It has 5 million people squeezed into 714 square kilometres, yet, compared to Tanzania, its total economic output divided by its population is 85 times greater!

Any politician in Tanzania listening to the vitriol on talk radio might be tempted to conclude that the public is reluctant, or worse, not interested, in accelerated integration. This would be unfortunate. The fact is Tanzania’s exports to the EAC have increased tremendously since the coming into force of the EAC Common Market protocol: according to Tanzania’s own Ministry of East African Cooperation, exports to the EAC rose by 71 % between 2009 and 2010. Imports declined by 8 % in the same period.

Politicians should lead from the front and tell their citizens the huge potential of an integrated East African market.

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