Saturday, February 4, 2017

Is Lack of Optimism a Bottleneck for Development in Africa?

There is an interesting fact that few foreigners know about Japan.  That is, the biggest ethnic population of Japanese people outside Japan live in Brazil, numbering more than 1.6 million for a diaspora that just 2.6 million strong worldwide.  From a modern-day perspective, the oversized presence of the Japanese in an economically struggling and geographically distant country like Brazil seem rather strange, especially when Japanese migrant populations everywhere, including in US, Europe, and Asia, are shrinking as fewer Japanese seek to go and live abroad.

But looking at Japan's modern history shows that this 1.6 million Japanese-Brazilians played a pivotal role in the country becoming the industrial power that it is today.  To summarize the story in short, at the turn of the 20th century, just was a largely economically backward, internationally isolated, and primarily agricultural nation.  Violent contacts with European and American colonial powers jolted the country's political leadership on the need to immediately industrialize or face a certain fate of losing political independence amidst economic dependency on wealthy foreigners.

However, the country, as the poor agricultural state that it was then, had little resources or knowledge to quickly catch up with the West in technology.  To accumulate needed resources, a brutal strategy was put in place.  Large numbers of Japanese farmers are shipped off to Brazil to work as permanent indentured servants on colonial plantations.  The lifelong slavish working conditions of these Japanese plantation workers were exchanged for large sums of remittances that the Japanese government efficiently invested in learning foreign scientific knowledge and building industries for manufacturing self-sufficiency.

A mere decades later, a Japan that had no more than wooden row boats a few years ago was able to indigenously produce a modern navy of steel battleships that destroyed the entire Russian fleet in a single battle.  The hard work of the its laborers in Brazil quickly made the country a global military and colonial power, giving it the skills and the resources to further exploit economic opportunities across the world to help it remain one of the premier manufacturing and trading nations on Earth today.  The initial funds provided by Japanese-Brazilians are indispensable for Japan's economic miracle in the early 20th century.

Yet Japan's story is but one of many miracles that many associate with what is called the "East Asian development model."  A few decades was all it took poor fishing villages like Hong Kong, Singapore, and Shenzhen to become economic centers of global caliber in their own rights, and war-torn locations like South Korea and Taiwan emerge from scars of conflict to become integral parts of global supply chains and commerce.  Behind every single one of these stories are millions of people who suffered just as Japanese laborers in Brazil, toiling in slave-like conditions so that capital can be acquired for economic progress.

Understanding how millions of East Asians were motivated to make such massive sacrifices for the development of their homelands is the key to understanding the success of the East Asian development model and then possibly replicate it to places such as rural Africa.  It is hard to say that the East Asians worked endlessly without complaint is purely a cultural phenomenon.  Like many Africans of today, these were extremely poor individuals who at the same time had little understanding of and incentive to participate in the global capitalist economy.  There must be some other force for them to work so hard for so little.

And that "some other force," the author ventures to speculate, may be the presence of an unusually high level of optimism among the East Asians who made such sacrifices both at home and abroad.  To put simply, the East Asians were willing to believe that their generation's sacrifice is directly correlated with improvement in the standard of living for the next generations.  And because they believe that the hard work they put in will be effectively utilize by political and economic leaders for successful nation-building, it is worth their genuine efforts to help as much they can in helping to create bright future for their posterity.

Such attitude of belief in individual sacrifice for collective economic progress is glaringly lacking among the Tanzanian population.  The author's personal experience interacting with locals have given him an impression of a populace thoroughly convinced of the local political leaders' inability to propel the country to developed world status irrespective of resources available.  Instead of trusting government institutions that they deem a hotbed of corruption and inefficiency, many rather place their limited hope in foreign donation-based NGOs that at least provide concrete, albeit short-term and unsustainable, results.

The permanent disappointment with governments disincentivize individuals from working hard.  More hard work, by the people's line of logic, would certainly boost government coffers, but would ultimately not translate to potential increase in living standards for them or their offsprings.  Instead, the extra resources will be squandered on vanity white elephant projects or consumption of foreign imports, neither of which helps increase the level of knowledge, skill, or infrastructure needed to take the local economy to the next level.  If more hard work and more money for the governments does not lead to development, why work hard?

Such lack of optimism is no doubt a massive bottleneck for individuals to work harder or for the government to improve.in terms of economic development.  A permanently disappointed populace would not hold the government responsible for providing economic value, and a government that is freed of expectations would not feel the pressure of using the citizenry's hard work to make concrete progress on the economic front.  The end result is both a government and a populace that is satisfied with a mediocre status quo and see no reason to put in more efforts to change the gloomy reality.

It is a situation that is completely opposite of the prerequisite for an East Asia-like development model to work, and not an easy one to reverse.  But it is not impossible either.  East Asia had plenty of nasty dictators who were more fond of political intrigue than economic development.  But once a visionary leader comes into power and make enrichment of the people a priority, things can quickly change for the positively constructive.  The author, for one, is optimistic that such visionary leaders can also emerge in modern-day Africa, making the continent an economic powerhouse in the decades to come.  

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