Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Impressions from East Africa: historical development, communities, and finances

Imagine Tanzania in the year 1900. This is a land that is 50% larger than the state of Texas, supporting a population of maybe 3 million. There was no infrastructure, no centralized government, and really, no history of a centralized government. Contrast that to Qing China, the Manchurian dynasty which ruled China up to modern times. Qing China in 1900 was arguably still one of the great powers of the world even if it was quickly falling apart. Back then, the population of China was several hundreds of millions. There was a history of civilization going back four millennia and certainly a tradition of strong centralized government, despite the fact that China is so geographically large.

One of the things required to create a modern nation state and the appropriate institutions is a sufficient population density in the surrounding area. China apparently hit that necessary population density thousands of years ago, but we should remember that Tanzania was nowhere near that threshold even one hundred years ago. A great book that expounds on this topic is "Guns, Germs, and Steel" for anyone interested. Despite these great contrasts, GDP per person in China and Tanzania 30 years ago was not so different. The take-home point is this: strong economic and political development doesn't just happen by default. It can get hindered by any number of things.

Think back to Tanzania in 1900: sparsely populated, inaccessible, every community for themselves. These communities, like other small communities throughout history, would need to be close knit. Vertical ties may involve patronage from a chief or leader who has surplus resources. That leader can distribute those resources to neighbors and subordinates in order to strengthen ties and bonds between them. Horizontal ties would involve relationships between friends, relatives, and neighbors who are on equal footing. In a small self-sufficient society, it is all about hedging risk. Sometimes one family has a good hunt, or a good harvest. Another family may fail to find an animal, or will have crops which get killed by fungus. Obviously, if neighbors are willing to readily share everything they have, the risk gets hedged throughout the community as a whole and everyone is better off.

In a century, the population of Tanzania has increased by 10-fold or more. It has been thrown into the modern world, and expected to develop sound Western institutions of government. Are these aforementioned cultural survival traits just going to disappear in a single human lifetime? Vertical ties of patronage in 1900 are manifested in the modern world as endemic corruption. Horizontal ties between neighbors manifest as a lack of savings. Let me expound on this last point. When we were in Kenya, one Westerner was telling me that if any person makes money or has a big payday, they immediately go out and spend it on all of their friends at the bar or restaurant. An employee of this person didn't want to keep her money at her house. She was afraid a friend or family would ask for it, and she would be obligated to give it away. These two examples help illustrate a source of serious economic problems. Without savings, there can be no investment. Without investment, there is no productivity growth.

I do appreciate that this dynamic is a testament to the strength of the community in Tanzania and Kenya, which is a wonderful thing. I've figured out that it is a big part of the attraction that Colleen feels to east Africa. Really, it is the same for me. The palpable sense of community is something we just don't have in the West anymore for the most part, and its something one can never perceive from photos of Africa. One has to be there to feel that pulse. Not to denigrate my own culture, because I love the West and I think it is the pinnacle of human existence: but this resource-sharing dynamic in east Africa is more instinctively "normal", in the sense that humans are hard-wired to operate that way. Sharing of resources in small, close-knit communities has been the norm throughout human history.

The communal spirit is what enabled clans and small groups of people to survive, because everyone is hedging their successes and failures on their close relatives. Only with the advent of larger towns and cities using national currencies have people in the West in particular moved away from this. There is still an intense attraction to what they have in east Africa, because I believe our brains were designed to function in small communities like they have (and we used to have) instead of the relatively lonely and unfriendly places in which we live in the West. In fact I've read psychological studies which suggest that 150 people is the ideal community size for Homo sapiens; we can keep tabs on and socially interact with that many people.

The move from small self-sufficient community groups to larger cities and towns in the West occurred over an extended period of hundreds of years. This gradual transition allowed for the culture to adjust slowly. We were able to develop a norm of anti-corruption (even though it still happens everywhere). Since everyone was participating in government we began to think in terms of nation or kingdom instead of tribe or clan. Notice in places where political participation was forbidden by some group or another (Jews in Europe, African Americans in the USA) there remained into modern times sort of "tribal" (us versus them) schisms that we see in the news all the time in east Africa and are oh so shocked by. Tribal tendencies, xenophobia, racism - we are talking about the same thing. Barack Obama, show us your birth certificate!

Anyway. If I had one point to this post, I guess it would be this: many people look at the lack of economic development in Africa and think "what has gone wrong?" My reaction is completely different: How could they be anywhere else? There has been so much change in such a short amount of time in east Africa, there is just no way it could have happened smoothly. In east Africa we've been expecting them to make the sort of adjustments in 100 years that in the West we made over the last 700 and in China they made over the last 4,000. This isn't even adding in the complicated history of colonialism, the effect instability of neighbors has on local development, and the effect of poor government economic policies. I don't even need to think about colonialism to not be surprised by the current political and economic position in east Africa. Yet only 30 years ago China was every bit as poor as Tanzania. 70 years ago Italy still had endemic malaria, a high birth rate, and extremely high infant mortality. I don't know how the current situation could make anyone pessimistic about the future of Africa, because to me it makes perfect sense that Africans are where they are now given from where they have come.

Its all about where they are going, and I think the future is promising. Maybe I'm too optimistic, but its never smart to bet against humanity. Topic for another post.

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