This week I spoke with Dr Arno van Niekerk, a University of Free State economist, author and Christian marketplace leader, about his new book which proposes economic solutions, for Africa and the world — based on Kingdom principles and the African idea of Ubuntu. You can find out more about the book, The Inclusive Economy: Criteria, Principles Ubuntu in the redacted Q&A interview below
What led you to write this book?
During Covid everybody knew there were going to be some major economic challenges. And we’ve heard a lot of prophetic words about the Lord wanting to do something in South Africa and in Africa. And there’s been major expectation, and also a major need for new economic thinking. So, I prayed about it and the Lord led me to very specific models — even aligned with the Joseph model and the model of the early Church, regarding new economic thinking as a kind of reset. So, that just led me to the need for new economic thinking which is aligned to the Bible. I started doing research and out of that started writing the book.
What is wrong with the prevailing capitalist system?
It’s an increasingly fragile system that is being eroded from the inside due to things like greed and the fact that it’s unsustainable in terms of the environment and in terms of resource management. Capitalism’s weaknesses, such as the disequilibrium between increased economic interconnectedness and increased isolation/exclusion, are behind dangerously growing levels of economic exclusion and social instability.
Its weaknesses are kind of overtaking it. And the problem is the alternative seems to be the Chinese model, which is even more dangerous, where there’s a centralisation of economic power. The book looks at taking the best of capitalism in a free market system and then also using some collectivistic, Ubuntu principles in terms of a sharing and collaborative economy. So, it is about literally rethinking the economy. It basically deals with systemic changes to the economy to make it more sustainable and to fill the hollowness of economic progress with substance. Progress based on real resources, markets that are sustainable and fully functioning. And then. also, an integrated approach where we involve the government, business and civil society in a more collaborative context in order to rebuild the economy.
Tell us more about the role of Kingdom principles and African principles?
I call it a Joseph plan to save Africa. And it’s actually applicable to the whole world. It deals with economic systems related to any system or economy around the world. But it has some core ingredients that very strongly resonate with Kingdom principles. And if you can reshape the economy to accommodate those, and integrate them, you actually develop an economic system that resonates with African people. Capitalism hasn’t completely worked in Africa in its present form because it’s based on individualistic approaches, whereas in Africa there’s more openness towards collectivistic approaches.
So, it’s geared towards that — to be literally a rescue plan to save Africa — and out of that to rebuild Africa to become the bread basket of the world. We sit on the richest continent in the world, but we are the poorest. Why? Because, on the one hand capitalism hasn’t provided the answers as it’s a system that doesn’t resonate with the African psyche. If you bring alignment between the free market system and what’s needed in Africa, and you also build in there on the foundation of biblical principles and values, you have a win-win situation. And that’s how the economy can literally reinvent itself in our context and become something that can be reproduced in the rest of the world.
You have said there is a small window of opportunity to implement this rescue plan
I would reckon there is about a five year window of opportunity. If we don’t start implementing this within five years there are going to be serious problems in terms of the system we have. There are serious system failures and also I would say the Chinese interest and the external factors coming into play.
What is needed is an urgent intervention but it’s not a revolution. It’s a gradual change, but very intentional. I mean, you can’t turn a big ship with a drastic change. So, it’s not disruptive but it is systemic change, dealing with the roots of the system and probing key questions. How do we repurpose business? How do we design our communities in terms of economic collaboration and turn things like rubbish dumps into oases? You know, they can be part of a circular economy where you upcycle and recycle, changing the value chains of business. Then business becomes more inclusive by creating opportunities for the poor so that they can add value to the economy. It’s not just about inclusion for the sake of inclusion — it’s about productive inclusion, so that the poor add value, and you have a synergy effect where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. And when the poor are included it also benefits businesses and those who are already part of the economic mainstream.
How do you get buy-in to move away from the entrenched idea that the economy is driven by satisfying shareholders?
The book explains how you transition the economy from a shareholder approach to a stakeholder approach where you involve broader role-players, who are affected through business, and they also become part of value creation on the one hand, and then also of sharing of the benefits of growth. And in that way you create an ecosystem within your communities and eventually vertical integration into the whole of economy — micro to macro levels. You reshape the ecosystem and where you’ve got that synergy — circulation of funds — you literally decentralise the economy to empower the people from the bottom up.
And, of course, I’ve made proposals in the book for policy change that deal with macro factors like monetary policy and fiscal policy. For instance, there’s a concept there that I explain — smart redistribution — where if people can be informed of how their tax money is used, the incentive to pay taxes will increase. Because then they know that it’s making a difference — and with the technology at our disposal, we can track our funds. If government can put that in place, there’s more transparency and people would even be willing to contribute more in some way or another. And then you build a more accountable economy, accountable government and accountable society.
Are you hopeful that these ideas will also be taken up outside of Africa?
I’m not just hopeful, I am certain that this is the only way for even the first world economies to be able to survive. Unless they start employing these principles, the alternative will be the Chinese model, which is a mixed economy and the centralisation of economic power. So this is the very option for them — coming out of Africa to the first-world nations and to other third-world developing economies as well. I’m not saying it’s the only way but it’s one of the main puzzle pieces — it shapes the core of what is needed. How do you make economies more sustainable? There are transitions principles, systemic changes that you need to put in place. And the book captures those. Whether it’s in full or in part, that will be the way forward. I have no doubt, especially as we move into a fourth industrial revolution and you’ve got innovation, you need the right kind of innovation. You don’t need innovation where technology takes people’s jobs. You need innovation that empowers the masses so that they become more effective contributors to the economy.
That is a different approach to one I have heard of from an adviser to the World Economic Forum who says most people are “unnecessary”
It’s staggering to hear such views. But that is typically a misperception that prevails in the thinking of the elites — the idea that we need to reduce the number of people because the levels of dependency are too high. In fact, the real wealth of the nation is the people. And if you can unlock the potential of the people, you end up with much more wealth than you would’ve had in the beginning. With this book, that is literally where I have placed the emphasis. If we we ask what is the most important thing in the economy, people or money, I say it’s people. Yes, you need money, you need circulation. But if we put people at the centre we refocus and redesign the economy. You rediscover true wealth and it’s very much linked to the original concept of the economy called “oikonomos”, meaning management of the household. And those principles are basically family principles that say: “I can’t sleep at night if my neighbour is hungry.” So, those are the principles to align to. And then we must create incentives for the poor to contribute productively to the economy. You can’t create wealth among the poor by the rich paying more taxes. You need to create capacity among the poor and out of that stimulate the economy to have inclusive growth. Growth has been measured in a quantitative sense. You know, how much is the production? Whereas we need to measure the quality of growth. Quantitative growth is just about expanding –but at what cost? We need to measure the costs of growth. I suggest in the book, for instance, a net growth rate, where you have social cost and environmental cost included in calculating growth in GDP. And you have what is called GPI — genuine progress indicator. That’s a better way to measure economic progress than just GDP or GDP per capita. I think part of the transition is employing better ways to measure economic progress. Especially today, with the technology we have — so much data is available to enable us to measure things in a much better way. If we start doing that, it’ll equip us to make better policy decisions, better business decisions, and to improve how we monitor the progress of the poor, for instance. But not monitor for the sake of control but to monitor for the sake of improving quality of life.
How do you plan to get your book in front of right people?
Obviously I’m going to do book launches around the country. But then I’m also going to have strategic meetings with business leaders, captains of industry, communities, and government officials. But also with the average person on the street because I believe word of mouth spreads the fastest. When the average person picks up the value of this it will start spreading like wildfire.
Where is the book available?
It will be available at leading bookshops. It can also be purchased directly from me at a discounted price of R250. If you would like to order the book directly you can email me at email@example.com
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