ACADEMICS and left-wing intellectuals seem puzzled by Botswana’s economic success. After all, the rest of the 54 African states are sliding downwards, or trying desperately to get out of the mire that they have sunk into since independence.

Why Botswana’s achievement should require such furrowing brows seems racist to some people (how could Africans actually run a growing economy with independent institutions like a judiciary and the like?). Common sense should make it obvious why the country has succeeded.

Nevertheless, not only is there is a veritable glut of academic research on the subject, search Google for “Why is Botswana such a success” and you get 23 million hits. That is how many people have asked the same question. Common sense is, alas, not that common.

Zambian intellectuals put it down to strong and accountable public institutions, checks and balances on politicians, and a strong homogenous population. Zambia, by contrast, has 174 different tribes but prefers not to mention this and in the Kenneth Kaunda years it did not have the other two factors either.

Another answer is that Botswana holds private property rights sacred. It therefore follows that no socialistic meddling in the economy is a requirement for success. Jeremy Cronin, please note.

As a British protectorate, the country was the most poverty-stricken territory ever painted pink on the imperial map. The colonialists did nothing by way of economic development apart from driving a railway line up its eastern edge.

On independence, in September 1966, Botswana had to start from scratch. It inherited nothing so colonialism could never provide a handy excuse for anything that went wrong.

We, on the other hand can, and do, blame apartheid for out failures.

Botswana’s leadership wisely listened to economists that were not closet socialists. They took advice from World Bank types rather than academics or, indeed, clerical politicians and aid agencies. They were happy to accept aid, but only on their terms. Unlike Tanzania and Zambia, Botswana was determined not to become a testing ground for economic theories. Kaunda and Julius Nyerere by contrast fell in love with them.

The result was that Botswana got richer slowly, the old way. Zambia and Tanzania had to reach rock bottom before they realised their mistake.

This slow, purposeful approach truly did achieve a better life for all Botswana’s citizens. They rose steadily out of poverty without riots, strikes, revolutions, and coups, and they now have a standard of living on a par with Chile and Argentina.

It has been a long haul. On independence, Botswana had 12km of tarred roads; in 2007, it had 7 000km.

Every index of economic progress tells the same tale. Sparsely populated, landlocked, Botswana has seen infant mortality drop, its people grow healthier, better educated, living longer, and the number of poor falling. Unemployment remains high at 17 percent, but this is a figure South Africa would go on its knees to achieve.

Is everyone equal, do they earn the same amount, live in identical homes, have the same number of cattle, enjoy the same things including talent as everyone else? Of course not. But everyone is better off, safe, secure and got there following an old recipe.

The Batswana did not seek a socialist nirvana. They had no Communist Party to dangle an impossible, unworkable vision in front of them.

Pragmatism was key. It had to be. There is a story that on the eve of independence, Sir Seretse Khama drew up a list of the country’s graduates. He ranked them according to the quality of their degrees. The upper half was told they’d go into the civil service while the bottom half were told they would have to go into the private sector.

If true, subsequent history demonstrates the genius of the decision. By selecting the brightest and best for the civil service, an elite core was created who would jealously guard standards if only to preserve their reputations. To become a civil servant in Botswana is an honour, a recognition of intellectual achievement and incorruptibility.

Equally, to be in the private sector was to be compelled to succeed on its own terms and in so doing create employment. In other words, entrepreneurial vigour was praised in Botswana not scorned for being involved in profit-making.

Contrast this with many African countries that saw their civil services packed with party loyalists. And new rulers who saw the private sector as a piggy bank.

Of course, the discovery of diamonds at Orapa was a massive boon to the economy. However, contrast the way Botswana handled the bonanza with how Zimbabwe dealt with a similarly significant discovery.

Botswana called in the experts and reaped long-term benefits for the Treasury.

Zimbabwe went at it with picks and shovels to begin with but soon the Zanu-PF elite took over. Blood was shed.

Now the diamond field is sealed, exploited ruthlessly, not for the benefit of the Treasury and, therefore, potentially for the general population, but for the wallets of Robert Mugabe and his cronies.

Botswana chose the long term. Zimbabwe emulated those fictitious London solicitors, Sue, Grabbitt & Runne.

What is the moral of this story? What lessons should we learn from Botswana? It is not too late to heed them.

Common sense is the main lesson, but since such thinking is rare, the lessons may need to be spelled out.

So, if you want to develop an economy and make a dent in poverty, beware of foreigners wanting to test their theories on your economy.

Be especially aware of well-meaning academics and politicians who peddle their ideas as solutions to everything.

Accept foreign aid only if you have to and accept it only on your terms. Take the long view.

Finally, never meddle with the right to own property, the bill of rights, the constitution, the judiciary or a free press.

Do any of these things and the slide to the bottom will begin.

Keith Bryer is a retired communications consultant