• When the term “socialism” is mentioned, Asians mostly think of it as codename for communist regimes in their immediate regions. This means the former Soviet bloc, China, and North Korea, on to lesser extents, Vietnam, Cuba, and Laos.

    But many Asians do not recognize that “socialism” in the usage of the word, can take many forms. Economically, it is a guiding principle for many Nordic states, and in the height of the Cold War, also dominant in formerly planned economies of India and countries of the Non-Aligned Movement.

    Here in Africa, the concept of “African socialism” was used extensively in the immediate aftermath of anti-colonial struggles, used by many nations as the ideological basis of developing economies that can stand on its own without domineering foreign influence.

    Julius Nyerere, the first president of Tanzania, was particularly a giant of African socialism, and in his vision, a socialist bureaucratic system is created in this country and continues to shape the functioning of local governments to this very day.

    So, what is wrong with Socialist Bureaucracy?

    “Inefficiency” would be a good one-word answer, but the same inefficiency is also perversely incentivized. To understand why requires a couple of examples.

    Here in Tanzania, for any business to operate in a village, an introduction letter to the village officials from the commissioner of administrative district containing that village is mandatory.

    Getting this one-page introduction letter often involves handing in stacks of documents on the business followed by a marathon waiting session in the dark halls of the local government's decrepit administration building.

    My personal experience had me showing up to the office of the commissioner at 10am, refused service for incomplete paperwork (purportedly not having enough for the government to “protect me during my field visits”), came back at 11am with the complete set only to find the commissioner out for a meeting. The bureaucrats’ lunch session did not end until after 1pm, and the whole office was done for the day by 3pm. I was told the letter cannot be produced in two hours since all the paperwork submitted needed to be reviewed first, so I had to go back tomorrow.

    Despite my staff arriving first thing in the morning at 9am for office opening, the same pattern from the previous day resulted, leading to the letter only issued at 2:30pm. All of the day-and-a-half waiting session happened despite our organization having prior approvals for operations in the area, and our dedicated government relations staff talking to the commissioners only a few days in the past for verbal approval of letter issuance.

    The phenomenon can be explained by "deliberate withholding of services" in countries with socialist traditions. 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.

    Tanzanian bureaucrats, in many ways, take to this logic with gusto.

    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 meaningless busy-work.

    And to take a step back, 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.

    But Socialist Bureaucracy is also prevalent in Asia

    More than a year ago, when I was still a high-flying businessman for one of Southeast Asia's most hyped-up e-commerce startups, I made frequent business trips to Ho Chi Minh City. At the immigration check area in the 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.

    Colleagues often interrupt even the couple of staffs that are on hand for inspections 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.

    But after close to a dozen trips through the airport, I also saw clear improvements. Fast lanes were provided for businessmen, feedback systems for immigration officers were installed. Business boom in Vietnam led to more arrivals but the lines at the border got shorter as officers worked faster.

    Indeed, the improvements at Ho Chi Minh airport illustrate that socialist bureaucracies can only be broken 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 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 this idea of "economic first" finally seeps into the most basic levels of local government. The organization that I work for, and many others like it, goes 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.  

    Image Credit: http://www.theeastafrican.co.ke