Tanzania 6 — Economic Reflections

One thing that living in a poor, rural part of Africa certainly does change is my perspective on economy. While I feel confident to say that the huge majority of things on sale in Germany, the US, or most of Europe don’t do much to improve people’s well-being or happiness (and many probably make it worse, at least if you take into account the work done to pay for them, and their effect on the environment) things are very obviously different here.

The only discernible „luxury“ items on sale are drugs — cigarettes, alcohol, meat if you want to count that here ;) Apart from that you get pots for cooking, water containers, soap, notebooks and pens, and very basic and local food items — bananas for cooking, rice, beans, tomatoes. You don’t even see too much fruit around, which is a petty for me personally but also I believe for people’s health. The services offered are similarly essential — bicycle repair, barber shops, „motorbike taxi“ and transport. And there are typing services, where your hand-written pages will be put into a computer for printing and copying. And, last but not least, a lot of people I think are more or less formally employed in helping with household chores. Here in my house there are two, but I feel at other times youths of different age pop in, help and eat…

This leads already to the production side, which I feel offers a very clear view of the concept of „value added“. The lower end is the mentioned „work for food“ concept. And I was told by teachers that many of the students would spend their afternoons like this: Two hours of walking to the river and back for 20 liters (some 5 gallon for my old-fashioned friends abroad) of water for their home, maybe a second round if the need is there. Then scrambling the bushes for firewood to be used for dinner preparation. So at nightfall, there is no homework done, clothes washed, or pleasure had from life. And what is the value generated in the process? A small contribution to what will eventually be a very modest dinner, together with many hours of peeling bananas, cooking different things one after another in a single pot over a small wooden fire. I don’t even dare trying to express that in terms of money. By the way, this story also explains the emphasis a youth magazine I read at school put on solar lamps for homework — I had wondered why people don’t simply do it in the afternoon… Then, of course, to continue the hierarchy of labor, there is agriculture, transporting and selling things, and the few skilled labor opportunities — barber, typist, motorbike driver.

Many of these activities strike me as painfully inefficient. Take the exams that I recently participated in composing — I was the only one to do that on the computer myself, and the colleagues were half shocked and half thrilled by the idea. The others wrote by hand on loose sheets of paper, to be collected and brought to the typist, who earns 500 TSH (25 Eurocent) for one page of output. That is the next fascinating point: Even in relation to local goods, the incomes and margins of profit are incredibly low. For 500 Shilling I can buy 2 small packages of roasted peanuts, and the price for typing one page is the same as for printing one page. The difference between buying and selling prices for the many shops are also very low. Human work is definitely not worth much here. And I feel the relationship to the value, the use, it produces is quite clear, as I said. If I transport a bunch of cooking bananas from one place where they are sold for 4000/= (the usual sign for Shilling) to another where they are individually sold for a total of 5000/=, my transporting, cutting up and selling has produced a value of 1000/=, no matter how long it took me and that I also need a bicycle to do it.

I also feel the way a whole society (or at least a region) can be stuck economically is visible here: Somebody should start with a more efficient, aggregate way of providing any of these goods and services, like selling water. But in order for his or her potential costumers to make use of that, they need an income — in other words: they also need to provide something to people others than themselves and their family. And somehow it seems almost impossible to start that cycle at only one point, which I think puts an end to many of the myriad smart little business ideas one could come up with here.

Another aspect is certainly capital, investment. A shop-keeper needs to hold a stock, a street vendor needs a bicycle to transport his stuff, a barber a room with electricity, mirror and an(electric) razor/shaving machine, not to mention the obvious case of the motorbike taxi. And this capital is still almost impossible to get with just a good idea and job qualification, despite an abundance of (mostly for-profit) micro-credit institutions by now. A new project partner of Action 5’s in Kenya had a plausible social business plan that would return its investment within a year and a half as profits. But they said even the micro-credit institutions want to see either an already running business and/or securities for their money.

Now, of course, there is a romanticism to this way of life. Self-prepared food is delicious and wholesome to an extent our mostly mass-produced stuff back home can’t reach. And the dominant (and hardly profitable) businesses, the small shops, also have a social aspect. People tend to buy everything in very small quantities — a single cigarette or maybe two, kerosene to light the lamp for one evening, rice for one meal, petrol/gas for one trip to town and back. I already get surprised looks when I buy a small bank-note’s worth of peanuts at once, 5 packages. I pass the shop every day on the way to school and back after all. And people who go to a shop always hang out there, meet the shop-keeper and other customers, chat and relax. But still I don’t believe it’s justified to say that this is just the way people choose to live. To many are the complaints from everywhere, too many the requests for help I get.

And this is a last point, of which I’m still not sure how close its relationship to the economic desolation is: the presence of (white) help workers and help industries. Firstly, this impacts the job aspirations of even and especially the well-educated young people. Their first choice is the government (for the security it provides, and maybe also a relic of the not-so-distant „socialist“ past), followed by international NGOs, and only then private businesses. Also, in terms of entrepreneurship, many seem to prefer starting their own little NGO with foreign money over starting a business (maybe this has to to with the aforementioned capital-problem). And secondly, pretty much anything that moves here involves foreign charity money, from water tanks for my school to the hospital to the roof of the local church. Now take into account that even the few things payed for by the government are in part funds from abroad. This seems to have almost become a reflex: our school needs books — find an NGO; I want my child to go to college — ask the white guy. In any case, the society and economy here are pretty much impossible to imagine without all these foreigners and organizations which permeate its every corner right now. And I can’t build up to much hope that the „new development aid“ will lead the way into more independence, after decades of different new aids have so obviously and utterly failed at that.

I am pretty much stuck myself right now with trying to sort that out mentally, trying to come up with the deep causes and possible ways forward for this situation. Maybe this feeling of mine is equivalent to the „problem trance“ we learn about concerning psychotherapy with especially depressive clients. I can’t help thinking, though, that the aid industry does after all contribute a lot to sustaining the misery, a conclusion I had always seen as free-market-ideology judging from the new genre of anti-aid books alone. At the same time, I most definitely don’t believe in the „just leave it alone“ message they often imply. I wish I knew more about how African economies do in the globalized markets right now, and what role that plays.

Datum: Samstag, 21. Mai 2011 19:03
Trackback: Trackback-URL Themengebiet: English, Weltreise 2011

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