Sunday, July 8, 2012

The middle class and dependency theory

Binyavanga Wainaina has written sharply and sarcastically on the image that non-Africans hold of Africa, and in particular how journalists report on Africa.  I think much of what he says is dead-on.  However, while his vindication of a comfortable, middle-class, up-and-coming Africa is a welcome counterweight to the common perceptions of helpless, impoverished, hopeless lands and people, I think it should remain a part of a more complex depiction, and not the only image we receive.  That is to say that I can appreciate that not all of Africa is poor and hopeless, but at the same time I know not all of it consists in mover-and-shaker businessmen and snarky intellectuals, either.  It is incorrect and unfair to suppress either of these two extremes of what society is in Africa or in any other continent.  For instance, in this bit Wainaina at once dispels outside biases about Africa and inspires with images of a young continent with a bright future.  But he also ventures perilously close to endorsing the dogmatic vision that a democratic, neoliberal government and urbanizing society will improve life for everyone.  This is untrue.

I face a similar situation when people ask me about Colombia, or when I hear others inside of and outside of Colombia comment on my adopted country.  On the one hand, I want to tell people that Colombia is not all druglords and civil war and displaced people and massacres.  It really isn't, and in my day-to-day life I have very little contact with these ugly sides of our society.  But on the other hand, it is unfair and downright sinful to go about our daily life in any part of Colombia without bearing in mind that certain sectors of our society are suffering from war and inequality and injustice and poverty.  We are after all in the middle of a civil war that has lasted for over 60 years now.  In fact, something my wife and I are often appalled at, especially after she has come back from a work trip in some war-torn, desperate corner of Colombia, is to see the bourgeoisie of Bogota living materialistic, self-absorbed lives.  Many people in Colombia are oblivious to the fact that they live in a country with some fundamental problems, problems in which they play a part whether they know it or not, whether they acknowledge it or not.  So when people ask me about Colombia, I try to downplay the awful image many have of our country, but I don't want to dismiss the very real challenges we face as a society.

Hence I applaud Wainaina in his dispelling certain cliches of reporting on Africa, but I would also warn him not to be too complacent, not to ignore the real problems that might exist in his native Kenya or any other country.  Whether or not outsiders unfairly focus on these problems, they do exist and should be a major preoccupation of anyone living in or throwing their lot in with Africa.

I think this article on dependency theory is very appropriate to this issue of downplaying or ignoring the have-nots of modern society.  In fact, the article quips, "'Everyone is doing better,' say the people who are doing better," and warns of "rich countries full of poor people".

Dependency theory is essentially the idea that wealthy countries are wealthy precisely because of (read: thanks to) their exploitation of poor countries, and vice versa.  That is to say that it questions Smith's idea of a rising tide lifting all boats, and slants more towards a zero-sum vision of economic winners and losers.  The author argues that while dependency theory hasn't entirely held water to describe differences in wealth and development between countries (because many formerly poor countries have become wealthy), it might be very pertinent for describing the differences between the rich and the poor within countries.  (The author also hints that improvements in living standards are probably due more to advances in medicine and technology, which I would add are both largely dependent on our disposing of a large amount of "free" fossil energy, than to market liberalization, but that is a story for another blog post).  Are the respective conditions of the mega-rich and the mega-poor in a given country mutually dependent?  Are the rich only that way because they exploit the poor?

I would argue in the positive, especially in light of the fact that much of the modern economy, at least in wealthy countries, seems to consist in zero-sum Ponzi schemes.  Market speculation, credit scams, even the market for unnecessary consumer goods (a la Home Shopping Network), look more and more as if value is not being created but rather transferred from many people to a few.  A market speculator who makes good does so only at the expense of someone else who loses precisely the amount that the speculator gains.  Likewise, in a super-streamlined business like Amazon or Walmart, any gains (profit for the company or savings for consumers) are directly linked to losses for suppliers and workers.  There's little wiggle room to create a win-win situation.  I don't think this exploitative nature is inherent to all market economies, but perhaps it is a defining part of mature economies in which basic needs have been met and business cost structures have been super-streamlined.  At any rate, it is one more reason for us in the developing world not to be too complacent with our rising collective (but ill-distributed) prosperity.  Colombians and Kenyans, take note.

The ideas for this blog post and many of the articles I link to come from the excellent weekly feature "links expat aid workers like".

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