Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The Specter of Socialist Bureaucracy

More than a year ago, when the author was still a high-flying businessman for one of Southeast Asia's most hyped-up e-commerce startups, he made frequent business trips to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam from his homebase in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  At the immigration check area in the Ho Chi Minh City airport, there was always a familiar sight.  In an area with a couple of dozen booths for passport stamping, only two or three are staffed with grim-faced immigration officers in uniform, doing their inspections at a leisurely pace while the line for entry in front of the booths get longer and longer as more passengers arrive.

Even the couple of staff that are on hand for inspections are often interrupted by colleagues either for a chat.  As these colleagues casually stroll into the occupied booths with their teas and stories, the pace of stamping greatly decrease, much to the annoyance of newly disembarked passengers in ever-longer waiting lines.  The bureaucrats showed zero concern for their visibly annoyed clients, continuing their chats while stamping away at ever-more leisurely pace.  The author faced similar "relaxed attitudes" of the border officials during his previous trips to India.

To explain the phenomenon, the author's friends in intelligentsia has noted the prevalence of "deliberate withholding of services" in countries with socialist traditions (Vietnam and India both count in this respect).  The logic is that by limiting the level of service people can get from bureaucrats, the people seeking services learn to take as norms minimal services with great degrees of appreciation, thereby legitimizing inefficient bureaucratic work without having to devote more resources and efforts to revamp them.  Many countries of this continent, thanks to traditions of "African socialism," take to this logic with gusto.

Tanzania in particular has been very much characterized by what the author would perceive as deliberate delays in the socialist way.  Past experiences dealing with confusing mess of paperwork is now compounded with firsthand experiences getting approvals from local governments for permissions to visit villagers.  In this episode, the author and his associates needed to survey farmers for potential launches of new projects in new villages.  But delays in local government to create introduce letters for officials in the said villages meant two-day marathon waiting session in the dark halls of the local government's decrepit administration building.

To be honest, the very idea of having to get bureaucratic permission to visit people smells of socialism.  Political socialism, by its very nature of desiring to control the state's paramount role in local economies, would like to have firm grasp of any non-state economic actors prodding around the state's jurisdictions.  The government officials' feigned commitment to "protect people from possible attacks" serve as a perfect excuse to bury willing organizations under a pile of paperwork that will deter all but the most enthusiastic from push hard for real work on the ground.

Moreover, with offices bursting at the seams with mysterious paperwork of all sorts and comparatively few "qualified" (read: approved to handle) pencil pushers, delays are conveniently guised with a sense that the bureaucracy is always busy and postponement of processing is natural despite any expressed urgency.  The results are bystanders that casually marvel at just how hard the government is working for the people ("Look at all the forms they are stamping and printing!") without any thought to just how much of that is acutely necessary and how many are in reality meaningly busy-work.

Looking at past examples, above-described socialist bureaucracies only broke up after incentives of officialdom shifted.  In reformed socialist states like China and Vietnam, officials getting promoted (or demoted) based on economic performance of their jurisdictions pushed them to bend head over heels for growth-creating businesses.  To attract more businesses, bureaucratic work had to be minimized to speed up and smoothen business operations.  Bureaucrats had to shift away from presenting superficial "good image" to the people and focus on getting results, if not directly for the people, at least for job-creating ventures.

Perhaps Tanzania's remanence of socialist bureaucracy will change as well when the idea of "economic first" finally seep into the most basic levels of local government.  The author's organization, and many others like it, go into new places to help create jobs in the often moribund local economy.  Sure, not all organizations will succeed, but at least in the process, they will inject at least a bit of financial resources in terms of employment and local goods/services purchased.  For all the patronizing concerns that the organization may "face attacks," leveraging them to better provide better livelihoods for the local people will make more sense.  

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