Botswana hasn't changed much in recent years and that is, for the most part, a very good thing. This is a country with much to envy: a stable, democratic political system, a relatively prosperous economy and a wealth of natural resources. Botswana isn't perfect, but 50 years after winning its independence, it's still one of the best places in Africa in which to live.
The Unhappiest Place on Earth?
We’ve always found people in Botswana to be a pretty welcoming and cheerful lot, and their booming economy suggests that there is much for them to be happy about. But not everyone agrees. In 2012 the New Economics Foundation (www.neweconomics.org) surveyed people in 151 countries in order to create the latest version of its Happy Planet Index. Contrary to popular reporting in Botswana in the wake of the survey, the index doesn’t measure people’s day-to-day happiness. Instead, it reveals the efficiency with which countries convert their natural resources into long and happy lives for their citizens while maintaining a small ecological footprint. In other words, the countries that do well are those where people achieve long, happy lives without overstretching the earth’s natural resources. Having languished in the lower regions since the index was created in 2006, in 2012 Botswana came in…last. Thankfully, things have improved in the years since – Botswana rose to a better, if still rather disappointing, 126th out of 140 countries in 2016.
By any standards, Botswana’s recent history is a lesson to other African countries. Instead of suffering from Africa’s oft-seen resource curse, Botswana has used the ongoing windfall from its diamond mines to build a stable and, for the most part, egalitarian country, one whose economic growth rates have, for decades, been among the highest on earth. This is a place where things work, where education, health and environmental protection are government priorities. Even when faced with one of the most serious challenges confronting Africa in the 20th century – HIV/AIDS – the government broke new ground in making antiretroviral treatment available to all.
The country’s dependence on diamonds is, however, also a major concern when looking into Botswana’s future; diamonds make up 85% of the country's export earnings and one third of government revenues. As such, the economy remains vulnerable to a fluctuating world economy – in 2015 the economy grew by just 1% (which is very low by the country's recent, albeit lofty standards) and unemployment sits at a worrying 20%, prompting the government to announce an economic stimulus package in 2016. Tourism is the big growth industry as the country attempts to diversify an economy that remains, despite some leaner times, one of the strongest in Southern Africa.
Fifty & Proud
On 30 September 2016, Botswana celebrated 50 years as an independent country. We were fortunate enough to join in the celebrations and the outpouring of national pride made it clear that this is one of Africa's most enduring success stories. Yes, much of it wouldn't have been possible without diamonds – the country would be unrecognisable to those who were around 50 years before – but Botswana has used its resources to make a better life for its people, something that can be said about few other resource-rich African nations. But there's more to it than simple good economic management, because this country is very much united. Despite considerable diversity, the project of building a cohesive and peaceful nation has been similarly successful – people here identify themselves first and foremost as Botswanans, with tribal affiliation very much in second place. If this sounds like a given, again, a quick scan of other countries on the continent serves as a reminder that this is so special that it fully deserves the slogan that accompanied the anniversary celebrations – ‘Botswana: United and Proud’.
In many African countries, an 11th straight election victory for the ruling party – in this case, the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) – would be a signal that all is not well. But in Botswana, the opposite applies. The government was reelected in 2014, with President Ian Khama and his BDP taking just under 50% of the vote, winning an absolute majority in parliament; for the first time, more voters chose opposition presidential candidates than the president himself. The opposition mounted a strong campaign and the electoral process was judged by international observers to be free and fair. In the aftermath, there were no complaints over electoral fraud, and a robust political debate prevails thanks to a free press and a marked lack of authoritarianism. In Botswana, it seems, voters keep reelecting the government thanks to a widespread perception that the government is doing a decent job. The fact that Botswana's past presidents have, for the most part, stepped off the political stage voluntarily, offers further credence to the idea that Botswana's governance, though far from perfect, is less about personal aggrandisement for its rulers than it is a reflection of the society it represents.
A Fragile Environment
Botswana inhabits one of the driest regions on earth, and not just because the Kalahari sweeps across much of the country's territory. In 2016 Botswana, along with the rest of Southern Africa, suffered its fourth successive year of drought, causing massive problems for the country's agricultural and cattle-farming sectors. Drinking water, particularly in the country's northwest from D'Kar to Maun, has become increasingly scarce, prompting concerns for the long-term sustainability of entire communities.
Despite low water levels in places like the Boteti River and the drying up once again of the Savuti Channel and neighbouring marshlands, wildlife tends to be surviving the crisis a little better than the country's human population, but poaching in the region remains a concern – despite promising news compared to the rest of Africa, the fact remains that Botswana has lost 15% of its elephants since 2010. Hunting, too, is a fraught issue, with the country's ban on commercial or trophy hunting in 2014 winning both praise and criticism from conservationists. The worldwide clamour for change in the hunting industry after the killing of Cecil the lion in neighbouring Zimbabwe in 2015 makes it unlikely that the government will change tack any time soon.