From 1965 to 1995, Botswana was the fastest growing country in the world. During this 30 year stretch, Botswana’s average rate of growth was 7.7% per year. Relative to other nations, Botswana rose from the third poorest nation in 1965 to an “Upper Middle Income” nation.
Of course the rest of Africa has not nearly done so well. The account of Acemoglu, Johnson, and Robinson, later published in Dana Rodrik’s In Search of Prosperity: Analytic Narratives on Economic Growth, suggests the following (summary taken from Beaulier):
1. Botswana possessed relatively inclusive pre-colonial institutions, placing constraints on political elites.
2. The effect of British colonialism on Botswana was minimal, and did not destroy inclusive pre-colonial institutions.
3. Following independence, maintaining and strengthening the institution of private property was in the economic interests of the elite.
4. Botswana is rich in diamonds. This resource wealth created enough rents that no group wanted to challenge the status quo at the expense of “rocking the boat.”
5. Botswana’s success was reinforced by a number of critical decisions made by
the post-independence leaders, particularly Presidents Khama and Masire.
Scott Beaulier, a graduate student at GMU, attempts to amend this view. He argues that British colonial policy was not so beneficient toward market institutions and rule of law. Most of all, “Botswana’s success was the result of good post-colonial policy choices.”
In other words, countries are not trapped by their past. I don’t know enough history to judge this research, but I do know that topics such as Botswana, or Mauritius (another success story), are underexplored by economists.
Addendum: Abiola Lapite refers me to his interesting blog post, he suggests that the relative ethnic homogeneity of Botswana is a critical factor.