Freakonomics and the African Economy

One indicator of how knowledgeable and intellectually adept a person is, is how much they have read. The trick is to quote a random line from Shakespeare or some famous philosopher such as Immanuel Kant or Jean Jacques Rousseau (random people I have heard of but don’t really know what they have said). This has the effect of giving people the impression that you know what you’re talking about. I really don’t have time to read 354 books a month, so I normally read half a book, and use my imagination to figure out what the rest of the book says. One such book is Freakonomics.

One of the early themes of the book is that of incentive. Incentive is what drives individuals to do certain things, for example, if I’m hungry, then I have incentive to eat. This idea of incentive can help us understand African economies, the potential growth of these economies and the potential impact of international investment and aid on the continent.

In 1652, Boet Jan van Riebeeck landed at the Cape of Good Hope and set up a trading center. A few years later, their colony started growing and the slave trade flourished, which provided cheap labour for the economic advancement of the colony. A few years later, the government tried to protect the interests of  minorities by setting up laws allowing them full economic participation whilst limiting the participation of the majority group.

Years later we Africans still somehow think that people landing on our soil are here because they get warm fuzzies when they give us money. We somehow forget the errors of the past, and allow ourselves to be exposed to new types of colonialism.

Here’s an example: Africans have decided that they are tired of the West and its bullying tactics, so various governments have started looking East. Good ol’ Mr. Chinaman comes to needy Africa and says “Hey, I can build you roads”, and “For you my friend, just because you’re my friend, I give you this railway line and power station for cheap price”. All the pauper Africans with illusions of grandeur repeat the same mistakes committed years ago. Centuries ago, it was a mirror for large portions of land. Now, it’s a railway track for something else.

I use China as an example because over the past few years, they have been prominent in the news for their involvement in the continent. The Chinese have come and built infrastructure for Africa so that they can have easy access to our resources for the growth of their economy. Much of this infrastructure development is based on loans which have to be paid back over the  years with interest. At the same time, many of these Chinese firms bring in Chinese workers who come in, plan the infrastructure, build it, and maintain it, with no skills transfer to the local people, hence leaving them exactly the same as before (at least they now have tar roads to beg on instead of gravel roads, does wonders for the knees).

I am by no means trying to say that the Chinese are inherently bad. But one thing everyone forgets to remember is that the Chinese government exists to promote the rights and produce economic benefits for their constituents, i.e. the Chinese people and not Africans. Similarly, other governments are brought to power (by pen or by gun) to represent the rights and  the benefits of their respective constituents. Yet, we as Africans have developed this suck-up attitude to Europe, America, the IMF, the World Bank (which basically is Europe and America) and now the East in the hope that they will throw gifts our way, because that really makes them happy inside and think of teddy bears and butterflies.

We as Africans need to start seeing ourselves as partners in development instead of just short-term beneficiaries. This way, we will look for long-term growth strategies in the development of the continent, and reject foreign interests that stunt our own, development and the inheritance of future generations. Let us stop saying “This makes us look bad to the world” as if we are accountable to the world, and let us start protecting our own interests and furthering our cause instead of just being pawns in the betterment of foreigners dreams.

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