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Should our leaders keep us poor and tidy?

Sometimes a simple snapshot tells a big story. Take the front page picture of the Daily News of 28 May did. It showed city askaris raiding petty trader stalls on Pemba Street and destroying the potatoes, onions and tomatoes the traders had hoped to sell. According to the caption, the raid was “an operation aimed at keeping the city clean.” What crime had these traders committed, other than trying to make a living and offering a valuable service to their clients?

Is this the Tanzania of today? A place where leaders prefer tidiness over reducing poverty? It is not possible to ask the traders on the photo but one imagines that they are hard working, hustling to make a few shillings to feed their family. Plausibly they struggle to pay for some extra tutoring for their children, or even to expand their business. And what support do they get? Bad infrastructure, traffic jams, red tape, and the city askaris dumping their stock of tomatoes and onions in the garbage. 

We often complain about the services provided by Government. It is true, our schools are of poor quality, water provision is dismal and health services leave much to be desired. Still, even poor services delivered by unmotivated civil servants are better than a government that harasses its people and destroys wealth that has already been created. 

While to its own people the government shows its ugly face, to foreigners our leaders do the reverse. Contrast the way the machingas are treated by city askaris with the welcome extended to the foreign visitors attending the World Economic Forum. Main roads were closed during rush hour so that the guests could move from their luxurious hotel to the conference venue at breakneck speed. Inside the conference there was lots of talk about improving the business environment, welcoming investors, and fostering economic growth. No mention was made of traffic jams, electricity black outs, delays at the port, red tape or poor quality roads. And no mention was made of the irony that while the WEF was talking about creating business environment, actual small entrepreneurs are harassed every day.

Instead of wooing foreign investors with sweet talk, the Government would do well to do something real about improving the business environment for both small traders and large entrepreneurs. Foreign investors are not ignorant. They read and know about the realities of life in Tanzania.  A good ranking on the international business environment league tables would therefore do more to attract foreign investments than any fancy conference: irrespective of how many last minute palm trees are planted and how tidy the city looks.

A good ranking would benefit ordinary Tanzanians mostly. 84% of poor Tanzanians are self-employed and engaged in entrepreneurial activities. There would be no better way to deliver on the promise of a better life for all than to create a supportive business environment for them. The petty traders of Pemba Street would be the first to acknowledge that.

Read more: business environment citizen doing business Machinga Oped

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