Lessons from the Asian Tigers for the “Big Four” agenda

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BY BENARD AYIEKO

Asian Tigers are the highly developed economies of Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan. The story of the four, which began in the early 1960s, still remains a talking point in development economics. Often referred to as the “folklore” of development economics, the rise of the Asian Tigers had an infectious effect on the other Eastern Europe countries. It led to the emergence of Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand – a phenomenon that greatly justifies the overwhelming attention that these economies have received in the recent years. It is this “miraculous” rise that has made them model economies for developing countries.

The rise of the Asian Tigers has led to overarching comparisons, contrasts and calls for African countries to learn from the Asian experience in order to achieve sustainable growth and development. The choice of the “big four” areas of manufacturing, health care, housing and food security is viewed by many development economists as a key strategy that could propel the nation towards a double digit growth and development as envisaged in the economic blueprint, Vision 2030. 

Just like the stubborn “big five” of the lion, leopard, rhino, elephant and buffalo in the wildlife, the “big four” agenda will be seen as stubborn to achieve in the next five years but one that if successful, will have a greater impact on the livelihoods of the majority poor and play a key role in solving the country’s endemic problems of poverty, ignorance and disease. The big four agenda is expected to increase low cost housing by over 500,000 units, ensure universal access to affordable health care services by all Kenyans, grow the manufacturing sector and create jobs for the youth  and ensure that there is food security  in the country.

It is well documented that the rise of the Asian Tigers hinged on the successful roll out of programmes in key sectors of the economy such as manufacturing, health care, agriculture, infrastructure, energy and housing. As we embark on implementing the “big four” agenda, one would ask; what lessons can we draw from the rapid growth of the Asian Tigers’ economies?

First, on manufacturing sector, the Asian Tigers formulated flexible laws and regulations on labour, taxation and the environment whose major effect was to expand industrial operations and increase output from companies. This led to an increase in goods for both local and foreign markets. Those with smaller domestic markets like Taiwan moved swiftly to seek free market access for their manufactured products in the U.S. They essentially adopted an outward oriented strategy and export promotion policies that went beyond their relatively small domestic market size at the time. With increased exports, these countries were able to boost their foreign exchange and reduce their ever growing balance of payments deficits.  That is why today, Samsung (a South Korean company is ranked as the third largest company by revenue globally) is one of the largest consumer electronics producer in the world.

Second, on housing, government intervention in Singapore is said to have achieved its objective of providing low-cost houses to the majority Singaporeans. The intervention took a two-pronged approach involving both constructing and providing finished units to suppliers of land. On the contrary, in South Korea, the government intervened by providing subsidized mortgage loans to low income groups while in Taiwan, subsidized low-interest mortgage loans were provided through a centralized government-run housing fund  which was loaded to the home purchasers at occupation. The Singaporean model was more successful and impactful.

Third, on food security, the success of agriculture which guarantees access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life was premised on land reforms, agricultural extension services, good infrastructure and heavy investments in rural areas. South Korea and Taiwan invested heavily in land reforms. To ensure that a lot of land is put into arable farming, these countries invested substantially in irrigation and other ancillary rural infrastructure. Additionally, they adopted the use of high yielding seeds, crops and use of fertilizer and modern agricultural equipment. South Korea adopted sound fiscal policy that ensured low levels of taxation of the agricultural sector.

Fourth, on health care, the Asian Tigers offers useful lessons to developing countries since they were able to ensure access to key promotive, preventive, curative and rehabilitative health care services for their citizens at an affordable cost. Hong Kong adopted a tax-financed system while South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore took the privately financed system. No matter the financing system that the government adopts, there is need to ensure that excessive health expenditures are controlled within the desired fiscal policy.

Even though there is a great cultural and environmental difference between the Asian Tigers and Kenya that makes each region have unique preconditions for development, there is compelling evidence that we can achieve higher outcomes on the “big four” development agenda based on the lessons offered by the Asian Tigers especially in areas where we have comparable aspects.