Out of Africa

By John Dunn

I n his own way, Raymond W. Baker has become a front-line freedom-fighter.

Based on his experience as a successful businessman in Nigeria and his first-hand confrontation with the problems facing developing countries, Baker founded Overecho Associates, a Bethesda, Md., firm that helps struggling democratic governments around the world survive and prosper.

Baker, who received his degree in industrial management from Georgia Tech in 1957 and his master's degree in business administration from Harvard, has become an authority on the problems peculiar to developing countries in Africa, Latin America, Central America, Asia and Eastern Europe.

"There are two things that a democracy must do once it has been achieved," Baker says. "No. 1, democracy must give political participation to all of the citizens, and No. 2, it must generate economic progress. It doesn't have to produce overnight prosperity, but economic progress must move forward with political freedom."

Baker's own success story is ironic in that while many people in developing countries look to America as the land of opportunity, Baker found opportunity in newly independent Nigeria.

"Africa was very much what Eastern Europe is at this point," Baker says. "It was regarded as the new frontier."

For two years Baker represented a firm managing two other companies in Nigeria. "I decided that I could do on my own what I was doing for that company."

In 1963, Baker set off on his own, continuing to work in Nigeria.

"During the first couple of years I did a range of consulting work: marketing research, feasibility studies, financial projections and economic surveys.

"The first company that I became involved with was a trucking company that was going out of business. It was owned by the speaker of the Nigerian House of Parliament, a man named Jalo Waziri. He asked me to take on the management of his business. We went nowhere for the first two or three years, trying to get the company straightened out. In the middle of the Nigerian civil war, we made a breakthrough. We figured out how to run the business and make it successful--and we did.

"Jalo Waziri became my partner on two other acquisitions, and we enjoyed a lot of success during the '70s. In 1976, I sold two of my businesses and became active in other parts of the developing world: Central America, South America, in other parts of Africa, and some parts of Asia."

I n the mid-1980s, Baker said he took stock of the state of the developing world.

"I realized that Africa was in the worst shape it had ever been in--far worse than at the time of independence. Economies were collapsing; there were civil wars and assassinations.

"Many developing countries, particularly in Africa, began to go backwards and experience huge economic problems," recalls Baker. "The two basic problems facing African countries were in terms of trade and debt. The developing countries are enormously in debt to the creditor nations. Africa is in a debtor's prison.

"I quite consciously said, 'What do I know about these kinds of problems that can be beneficial to developing countries?' I went through the process of analyzing the various problems that developing countries have, and boiling them down to three areas where I felt I could be of significant help.

"My work is mainly in these three areas: the promotion of democracy, the alleviation of debt, and the terms of trade. Developing countries have found that over the past 10 to 15 years what they export has been stagnant in price, whereas what they import--which in most cases is machinery, technology and raw materials--has been rising in price."

B aker has worked at the presidential level in developing countries, addressing debt, trade and democracy. "The resolution of those three areas are necessary before countries can begin to succeed with the political and economic growth developing countries are striving for."

There are many similarities in the problems faced by developing countries, but there are also substantial differences among Africa's problems and Latin America's problems, and the problems facing East European countries, Baker says.

"Most of Latin America--with the exception of Cuba--has achieved democracy, however tenuous and uncertain it is. By no means are the political problems solved. The greatest challenge for Latin America is to develop the institutions that support democracy--the legislative and judicial systems, and the office of the chief executive, so that democracy can be sustained."

Baker says passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement was "extremely important."

"It will benefit North American countries to have a common trade area and will probably lead to a Western Hemisphere free-trade area. And that would logically lead to global free trade.

"Cuba cannot remain an island of communism or socialism in a world where democracy and free trade are solidified,'' Baker adds. "How Cuba changes is unpredictable, but clearly it must change. Haiti is also a bastion of authoritarianism that has to change."

R ecently, Baker has been traveling in Poland and the Czech Republic. The Czechs and Slovaks separated in a "Velvet Revolution" that followed the collapse of the USSR.

"Poland has come out from under the communist yoke, is attempting to go through a rapid reform process, and is making enormous progress," he says.

Baker says two factors have helped Poland. It has a strong sense of identity because of the Catholic Church, and communism never succeeded in taking over the country's agriculture. "The bulk of the land continued to be privately held and farming continued to be tantamount to an entrepreneurial activity on the part of the Polish rural class.

"Poland will make it," Baker says emphatically. "There will be great economic dislocations; there will be strain, and there will be a tendency to perpetuate some state ownership, and a need to address pension problems for Polish citizens thrown out of work. But all of this is manageable."

In accessing the Czech Republic, Baker is also very optimistic.

"My impression of the Czech Republic is that it must have taken the Czechs about five minutes to convert from communism to capitalism," Baker says. "They had no difficulty whatsoever making the transition. It has a growing economy, an enlightened president in Vaclav Havel. It will make the transition; it will integrate itself into the Western European mold; and it will succeed as a country."

In October 1987, Baker received word that Jalo Waziri had died. "I was stunned by his death. The next 48 hours turned out to be the most creative period of my life. I sketched out in my head a play titled "Waziri," which was subsequently produced and staged. It is a play about bonding in a cross-cultural relationship. It is a play about a white foreigner who comes to Africa and becomes friends with a prominent black African. While the play is fictional--its story line is set in a time of war, assassinations, coups and difficulties--it is emotionally autobiographical.

"What I have learned in 30 years of involvement in Africa and other parts of the developing world is that in human relationships it is not race; it is not culture; it is character. It's what's inside a person's mind and heart that ultimately allows two people to bond together. That's a part of the journey that has taken me the greater part of my life and has been altogether interesting and rewarding."