A street in Gaborone. (Photo/ Flickr/ Michael Winkler)

The Rich Also Cry: Why Is Wealthy Botswana So Miserable?

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BOTSWANA regularly tops all the good rankings in Africa, with a reputation for political stability, good governance and sound economic management. It is one of the few countries in Africa that have escaped the “resource curse”.

The proceeds from diamond mining have been ploughed back into the economy and welfare of citizens, fuelling growth and allowing it to grow from one of the poorest countries in the world when it became independent in 1966 to a “middle income” nation, Africa’s third-richest per capita.

But you wouldn’t know it from looking at latest data from Happy Planet Index, in which Botswana is dead last in Africa. The HPI measures the extent to which countries deliver long, happy, sustainable lives for the people that live in them. It doesn’t merely look at citizen happiness per se, but is an efficiency measure, ranking countries on how many long and happy lives they produce per unit of environmental input.

The index is calculated using global data on life expectancy, experienced well-being and Ecological Footprint. Experienced well-being is calculated by asking respondents to imagine a ladder, where “0” represents the worst possible life and “10” the best possible life, and report the step of the ladder they feel they currently stand on.

Ecological footprint is a per capita measure of the amount of land required to sustain a country’s consumption patterns, measured in terms of global hectares (g ha) that represents a hectare of land with average productive biocapacity.

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Botswana comes up short on all three measures – with a life expectancy of 53.2, it is on the lower side in Africa (possibly due to the high prevalence of HIV/Aids in the country, at 25%).

On the ecological footprint, as an arid country, Botswana has one of the highest per capita consumption patterns of water, food and carbon; only Libya, Mauritius and Mauritania are higher – all wealthy, or dry countries (or both, like Botswana).

But what is more intriguing is that respondents from Botswana ranked their well-being at just 2.8 out of 10; the African average is 4.2. Why is Botswana so unhappy, if the country functions so well?

The answer could be in how people see their relative, rather than absolute, unhappiness. Botswana has a population of two million people, the biggest city, Gaborone, has just 350,000 people. The city is nearly bereft of the hustle and bustle that typifies many African capital cities.

In a way then, once you have reached a threshold level of education, health and reasonable governance, as Botswana has, happiness becomes more elusive, and life satisfaction plateaus.


In order to have innovation and change, you need diversity. Bostwana’s small size and homogeneity, though it is great for political stability, doesn’t work in its favour here – the so-called six degrees of separation might be as small as two; you can easily meet all the interesting people there are to meet.

In a way, then, Bostwana’s problem could be that it is right next door to South Africa, a country that dominates the whole southern African region, economically, militarily and culturally.

Perhaps Botswana looks at its own smoothly running, perfectly coiffed machine, and it seems dreary and lacklustre, compared to the vibrancy – and adrenalin-inducing commotion – next door. As psychologists say, nursing unfulfilled ambitions is much more painful than outright misery.


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