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How African politicians learned about economic governance from France

December 30, 2010

This is a story I have heard in West and East Africa. In  francophone countries it is linked to France, and in anglophone countries, to Britain. I recount it using the francophone version of the story (though the smart reader will have noticed I do so in English).

In the early years after indendence, a finance conference was held in Paris. Finance ministers from all the newly independent French speaking countries in Africa attended, hosted by the Finance Minister of France.

The conference took place over three working days, Thursday to Monday, with the weekend off. On the Friday afternoon, the French minister asked his counterpart from one of the new nations if he’d like to visit his chateau for the weekend, and his colleague accepted.

On Friday evening they were taken to the airport in a fleet of limousines; they flew in a helicopter to a beautiful chateau, in its own immaculate grounds, and surrounded by woodland and lakes. They spent the most incredible weekend feasting, drinking and dancing at night, and hunting in the forest during the day. Early on Sunday evening, sated, they returned to Paris in the helicopter. The African finance minister was visibly perturbed about something, and his host asked him what was the matter?

“Monsieur,” answered his guest, “I am troubled. I have spent the most incredible weekend of my life as your guest, and I hesitate to bother you with questions…”

“Go ahead my friend,” replied his host kindly. “If I know the answer to your question, I will gladly provide it.”

“Well,” his guest began, “I have seen your chateau, and can only imagine the cost of such a place – to say nothing of the costs of the magnificent party to which you invited me over the weekend. And I know that France is a wealthy country, much richer than mine. Nevertheless, I struggle to comprehend how you can afford such things, on the salary of a finance minister.”

The French thought for a moment. He looked out of the window of the helicopter at the landscape beneath, apparently searching for something. Afer a couple of minutes he smiled and gestured to his colleague to look out at the landscape below.

“I am not at all offended, my friend,” he said. “On the contrary, it gives me great pleasure to be able to give you some guidance in carrying out the important role of finance minister. Do you see that new road down there, and the newly built bridge which crosses the river?”

His counterpart looked down through the gathering dusk, and indicated that yes, he could see the road and the bridge in question.

“Yes, I see the road and the bridge, but what of it?”

“Well”, said his host, “everything that is built by the state here in France comes across my desk, so I simply take a small cut of 2% to help finance the lifestyle appropriate to my role as a minister. You see?”

“Ah!” said his new friend, happy to have got the answer to his question. “Yes, I see now. Thank you.”

They returned to Paris, and the rest of the conference went well.

Three years later, it was the turn of the African minister’s government to host the finance conference. Again, it was held Thursday to Monday, with a weekend break. On Friday, he approached his old friend the French finance minister with an invitation.

“My friend,” he began, “you were so kind to me three years ago, and I would like to repay your hospitality. Please be my guest for the weekend at my country estate.”

The Frenchman agreed, and at the end of the afternoon they were whisked off to the airport in a fleet of limousines, flown in a private jet to an airfield up-country, and from there in another fleet of limousines along a brand new four-lane tarmac road to a vast and luxurious compound complete with swimming pools and fountains. Again, they had a fabulous weekend, which surpassed the level of luxury and entertainment they had experienced in France three years earlier. It was a weekend of excess, and as they were flying back to the capital on Sunday, the Frenchman dozed for a while, before raising himself up in his seat a little to address his host.

“My very good friend. You have provided me with a weekend the like of which I could only have dreamed. You have more than repaid my hospitality of three years ago, and I thank you. But I do have one small question, if I may?”

“By all means, my friend. Fire away.”

“Well… Three years ago, you seemed very ignorant of how to makes ends meet as a finance minister, and I gave you a small piece of advice. Now, a mere three years later, I see that you have done very, very well for yourself. But I struggle to comprehend how you have managed to secure such riches, especially since your country’s budget is so much smaller than mine….?”

“Ah yes. I see what you mean. But it’s easy to explain. Look out of the window.”

The Frenchman did as he was bid.

“Now, do you see that six-lane autoroute down there, and the bridge, and the power station?” He gestured expansively with his right hand towards the ground, hundreds of  metres below.

The Frenchman searched everywhere, but could see only fields, trees and the occasional small village of round grass houses.

“I am sorry my friend, but try as I might, I cannot see them,” he replied. “In fact, I am pretty sure they do not exist.”

“Exactly, mon frère,” said his host with a proud, wide grin. “One hundred percent!”

One Comment leave one →
  1. January 16, 2011 9:13 pm

    There are times that i dont read more than two lines but i think you have a unique blog. Grats !

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