It’s not the size of the dog in the fight…

It takes about ninety minutes to drive from the main port in Unguja, the largest island that comprises Zanzibar, to its northernmost tip, assuming you don’t first suffer death by dala-dala. Making this journey earlier this week, something my companion said raised a question: Is Zanzibar simply too small to form a viable unit of development? And, if we accept that size alone is not its impediment, why has Zanzibar developed so slowly since its heyday as a port and centre of regional trade when other island-states have boomed?

This is not simply a parochial question, significant only to its one million-odd inhabitants. To reflect on it forces us to engage with the historical development processes of other island-states and Zanzibar’s own involved history; it raises questions of the role of geography; of colonialism; of local identity, culture and political history in development. A blog post can only touch on these questions, but they illuminate some of the bigger issues with which we need to get to grips in other African countries if we want to have a fuller understanding of why they are stagnating or developing only slowly.

The question is also ripe with political significance. Though it’s part of the Union Republic of Tanzania, and lies just 35km away, Zanzibar has a distinct cultural, political and economic history, which form the basis of a vigorously independent identity. This is reflected institutionally: Zanzibar has its own President and House of Representatives, its own Budget and its own revenue collection authority. This identity and set of institutions has not seen off poverty: most of Zanzibar’s population remains food-insecure, and the economy is heavily dependent on a few unreliable sources of income, chiefly spices and tourism.

First, it’s worth briefly dismissing the ‘size-matters’ argument as sufficient to explain why Zanzibar has not escaped from poverty. Island-states have developed elsewhere in the world, particularly in East and South-East Asia. An interesting comparison is with Hong Kong. Zanzibar is actually larger than Hong Kong by about 600 square kilometers, though its population density is far lower. Hong Kong’s geopolitical situation also bears resemblance to Zanzibar’s: it is a small island off the coast of a massive continent, and in particular, off the coast of one of the continental powers. The climates are not wildly dissimilar: rainfall is seasonally isolated, but severe when it does occur; for most of the year it remains hot and humid. (Indeed, Zanzibar is unique in Africa in that its climate supports growth of fruit that is otherwise found only in South East Asia). It is a natural port that attracted colonial and commercial interest for this reason. It has relatively recently ‘unified’ with its mainland power, while retaining a degree of autonomy (and in both cases, this autonomy is much clearer in principle than practice).

Despite these similarities, their histories are not even distant relatives. Hong Kong’s importance as a port was gradually superseded by its importance as a financial centre, and it became a service-oriented economy, which propelled it to remarkable growth rates in the second part of the twentieth century as one of the most successful East Asian Tiger economies. Zanzibar, on the other hand, was overtaken as a port by Dar es Salaam, and its economy diversified from its plantation-and-subsistence agriculture mix only by the addition of tourism as a major source of revenues. Poverty and hunger remain common and private enterprise outside of the tourist industry demonstrates little dynamism.

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