Against All Odds: Botswana’s Development Wonder

By Timothy Motte

Noted by Paul Collier in his seminal work, The Bottom Billion, being landlocked, having bad neighbors, and suffering from a poorly educated population are just some of the obstacles countries face as they develop, and Botswana faces all three. Not only is the country bordered by Zimbabwe, Zambia, South Africa, and Namibia, but the number of university graduates the country had at the time of independence was only 22. Botswana’s internal infrastructure was also incredibly weak. With only 7.5 miles of paved roads for a country roughly the size of France, Botswana’s chances of success were improbable. Making things worse, after discovering diamonds in the country, it had to navigate growth without developing the dreaded “resource curse.”

Despite these challenges, Botswana now has one of the highest standards of living in Africa, a “coup-less” history, and a corruption index lower than South Korea and Italy. Bucking the odds, Botswana’s success can be attributed to three things: pragmatism over ideology, openness to international trade, and efficient resource management.

Valuing pragmatism

If there is one name to remember, it is that of Sir Seretse Khama. Khama was the heir to the throne of the Bamangwato people, a leading tribe in what was then called the Bechuanaland, a British Protectorate. During his studies in London, he met and married Ruth Williams, a white British woman. The marriage stirred up controversy not only between tribal chiefs but with the apartheid government in South Africa as well. Khama was exiled until 1956, and when he returned, he created the Botswana Democratic Party, which with its anti-apartheid, anti-colonial stance, placed itself in direct opposition to the Botswana People’s Party (BPP). Khama’s party enjoyed support in rural areas and with tribal chiefs, while the BPP was popular with urbanites.

It is important to note that Bechualand was not a colony but a protectorate, which meant the British meddled with internal affairs less than in their colonies. Still, they nonetheless unfairly taxed Bechuanaland natives with policies, such as the Hut and the Native Tax. Some analysts say inspiration Khama took from the British administrative and legal framework was fundamental to forming Botswana’s democratic institutions.

 In 1965, Khama became Prime Minister, under his party, the Botswana Democratic Front. In 1966, Botswana gained independence, and Khama became Botswana’s de-facto first president. Khama’s style of rule was a mix of pragmatism, compromise, and international openness. He installed a Westminster-style democracy which also incorporated tribal traditions. Botswana formed a unicameral 31 member Assembly, alongside an aptly named House of Chiefs as an advisory body. Observers say that the Tswana (the dominant ethnic group in Botswana) tradition of kgtolas,” during which tribal chiefs can receive criticism from their constituents, proved essential in the forming of Botswana’s robust democratic foundations.

Recently, Botswana held another fair election, and despite candidates from the Botswana Democratic Party having won every election, the country has a legitimate opposition party, and elections are considered fair—having never once undergone a military coup. In 2019, Botswana ranked 29 on the 2018 Economist Democracy Index, higher than countries such as Belgium, Italy, and only four spots under the United States.

Smart finances

In 13 years, the per capita income in Botswana increased 10,000 percent. This was achieved by a plethora of well thought out, market-friendly measures that are still effective today. Instead of adhering to the same Marxist stance, other African leaders embraced, Khama pushed for international trade, private investment, and financial independence from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. Botswana also signed trade deals with the European Economic Council, and Khama helped to create the Southern African Development Community.

In addition to financial independence, Khama realized two things: first, the immense financial gain to be had from the country’s diamond resources, and second, the country’s infrastructural weakness which prevented them from doing so. Instead of nationalizing the diamond industry, he invited foreign diamond conglomerate DeBeers to use its technology to extract and find new diamonds, at the sole condition that the revenues would benefit Botswanas. The result was a venture called Debswana (DeBeers+Botswana), in which the Botswanan government has a 50 percent stake and takes a large cut of the profits. Revenue from the venture allowed the Botswanan government to invest in education, health, and infrastructure.  

A New Challenge

Botswana has also met the recent COVID-19 pandemic head-on. DeBeers donated $2.5 million to Bostwana and Namibia, materializing the deep-rooted relationship between the country and the company. Botswana currently has 22 reported cases and only one death. The country took rapid and drastic measures; the whole parliament, including President Masisi, has been quarantined after a health worker for the lawmakers tested positive. Once again, the country seems more prepared than its neighbor Zimbabwe, which lacks supplies and whose doctors were on strike a couple of months ago.


What is impressive about Botswana is not its statistics. For instance, its Human Development Index is 94 out of 189 countries. What is incredible is the constant growth, stability, and freedom the country has enjoyed despite the obstacles it faces and the geographic location it inherited. It has averted civil wars without resorting to dictatorial methods, it maintains a functioning democracy despite abundant natural resources, and it has built a country capable of developing and prospering without overwhelming help from aid agencies. Whether Botswana’s success can be replicated is debatable, how it has overcome many of the challenges facing other African nations can still provide guidance and inspiration.

Timothy Motte is currently a sophomore at UC Santa Barbara studying global studies. Born in London, raised in Paris, and having moved to the United States, he is the founder of, a student-based international affairs think-tank. Timothy is also a delegate at this year’s World Bank Youth Summit and an intern at the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.