The Chinese Lion

The Chinese develop infrastructure because it will ease the flow of their goods around the country.  Having a 1.5-lane road out of the largest port in East Africa (and largest oil refinery as well), will not make it easy to ship DVDs to Nairobi.  Good roads allow for more piki pikis (inexpensive motorbikes used for taxi service; made in China), good electrical systems allow for more computers and mobile phones.  And of course, also providing medical care and some food production will keep your consumer base alive.  And it’s good for the PR.  How is it that Communists are out-capitalizing Capitalists?

Don’t forget the tourists either.  Kenya is a beautiful place, no matter where you hail from.  It is also potentially the cradle of all humankind (the Great Rift Valley is thought to be just that).  There are animals here that attract Westerners and Chinese alike, as they are unique to Africa.  The tourist industry in Kenya is faltering as Westerners feel the global economic crunch.  After the 2002 tourism crunch due to the terrorist attacks in Mombasa, Italians and Germans filled the tourist gap left by the British.  The 2009-crunch gap will potentially be filled by the Chinese.

Take it as you will.  None of this is to say that the notion of development through goodwill is completely failed.  In fact, if you look at the second definition of investment it does not specify an expectation of return in the form of money just an expectation of worthwhile result.  I think Western agencies with feet on the ground need to act more like capitalist investors, better judging risk and reward, creating situations of accountability, promoting the top, but all the while expecting tangible returns.  Too many projects start, fail or have mediocre results.  It’s worse than the Silicon Valley startup culture I tell you, and this is unacceptable.

All I know is that there are a lot of guys with Chinese motor bikes making money.  They don’t care about soap, or porridge projects, or beekeeping because they can make enough money to have fun now.  Everyone calls Kenya a polepole culture (culture of slowness), but the youth don’t go slow; they like fast bikes, and fast money, and that’s what the Chinese bring.  Maybe we should just start a piki piki company and call it, “Goodwill.”

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2 responses to “The Chinese Lion

  1. This is interesting.

    Much of the western world was, and continues to be criticized if it partakes in “shock” development. Instant modernization (or to the anti-colonialists: westernization) has always seemed so negative to me because there has been so much effort to resist it. It is taught to be sensitive to the needs of the developing world in a way that seems to inspire independent economic and industrial growth as opposed to selling pre-packaged modernization.

    However, such a process is slow and frustrating. Not only for the governments facilitating aid, but especially for the recipient governments watching other economies skyrocket.

    Do you think that it may be “acceptable” to introduce this shock development to developing countries when it is another non-western nation implementing the process? Is it really highlighting a continuation of anti-colonial sentiment?

  2. I appreciate your expanded insights into some of the matters I only briefly touched upon. I also like the term, “shock development.”

    The first thing I think everyone needs to agree on is that very rarely is there a single, perfect way to help a nation develop. Do too little and you are seen as uncaring. Do too much and you are seen as inappropriately influencing a culture. Anywhere in between these two extremes, and there is bound to be one project or another that cries for attention and when they do not receive that attention, they call a development-foul.

    The only way out of this mess is to potentially set some internationally agreed upon, ultimately arbitrary, standard at which point more traditional (as in, last-two-decades-style) development work can cease and an economy can be exposed to what you call shock development.

    Yet even that is flawed because it will ultimately enforce standards on developing-nation cultures that have maybe only been influenced by the more dominant Western culture. What markers would be used to indicate a culture or society is prepared for shock development? Which Western culture out there can say that they themselves have actually attained those levels themselves? I know of plenty of cases of murder, rape, domestic abuse, etc in the United States, yet we are all allowed to have automobiles, high speed Internet and in general high standards of living. Ultimately any metric we use will be flawed in both its application to developing nations as well as when it is applied to countries we consider developed. How much grey area do we allowed to exist before the shock development kicks in?

    Aggressive profit-oriented capitalism has its own metrics based simply on supply and demand. It is culture-agnostic, or rather, it may be more in tuned to what culture really is than any other arbitrary metric we could create. We always talk about letting the people of the developing nation choose what they want for themselves, and so I say again, if they choose they want to improve their lifestyles by being able to purchase finished goods, then who are we to tell them that is not their culture. Are we to tell them that they are being clueless, that they are blinded to the long-term impact upon a society if development were to occur this way? Do we actually have any proof ourselves of the true impact of this shock development? As far as I know, Kenya is in the first generation of post-colonial nations to be the attention of development agencies worldwide, and the job here isn’t done, so how do we know what the end result will be? We ourselves don’t have proof that what we are doing is better than what Chinese importers are doing.

    Some of the largest cultural transformations, and developments we have seen in modern times were those that aggressively adopted Western-style ideals when and where they needed them. Look at early 20th-century Japan and its Western-style industrialization. Was that not a shock development? Yet Japanese culture is still alive, vibrant, rich. Singapore, the darling Asian Tiger economy, implemented many aspects of Western style business culture while retaining that which they value in other areas of life. These countries that successfully develop economically without the mass help of a bunch of twenty-somethings, wandering-through-life, professional adults from other countries, demonstrate that culture and society can develop mutually with economies if under proper governance when exposed to the global economy.

    With all of this, I guess my short answer is that Western-style goodwill development treats culture as if it were some infant that needs constant protection and we get frustrated when the baby tries to grow up so we intentionally stunt its growth (this is not an accusation that NGOs want to keep themselves in work, a point I would argue otherwise in fact). In reality, culture is what the people want it to be. It is a survival of the fittest, where particular aspects of a given culture strive for the allegiance of its people. Those aspects that gain enough support continue on into the next generation of economic growth and internationalization of the nation. Those that do not fall to the wayside. Last I heard we don’t have witch-trials anymore in my native New England. Is anyone sad that cultural aspect lost out? To a certain degree shock development should be used much more, as long as proper governance is used to prevent it from becoming shock exploitation.