10 February 2007

China, Cargo Cults and Growth

On Thursday, Chinese President Hu Jintao visited Mozambique during his whirlwind tour of Africa. I think that I may have seen his motorcade pass on Ave. Eduardo Mondlane that afternoon. Not too many people rate 10 motorcycle police, 4 sedans with darkened windows, an ambulance for a private clinic, and 3 large truckloads overflowing with Mozambican soldiers carrying AK-47s. The whole thing took about 5 minutes to pass and made a hell of a lot racket (almost as much as the 4-wheelers young men drive on the streets of Maputo for kicks). The people on the street looked up briefly, but then went back to whatever they were doing. The atmosphere felt resigned - the equivalent of a "Whatever" this doesn't matter to us.

According to the the local paper, China has forgiven Mozambique $20 million USD in debt which is a good thing. That's a lot of money. They also pledged to continue to invest in Mozambican markets and build a sports stadium in exchange for Mozambique increasing the amount of Chinese imports they let in. I won't summarize any further. Here's the link to the article itself.

Mozambique: China to Cancel Debts

Agencia de Informacao de Mocambique (Maputo)
February 8, 2007

This story is being played out all over Africa, and has been historically. Historic evidence and patterns say that these types of treaties, no matter how well meaning, lead primarily to increased dependency on foreign investment (or complete takeover, see National Geographic's coverage of Nigerian Oil). I can be optimistic that it won't happen, but the pragmatist in me says get real.

I probably wouldn't be thinking about this so much if I hadn't run across a paper in the Journal of Southern African Studies recently that discussed Mozambican attitudes towards development and land (citation below). I read the paper mainly because it talked about how the 1997 Land Law gave communities and individuals the right to delimit and register land as their own (i.e. local communities and people can now claim ownership to traditionaly occupied lands). Under this law, Mozambican and foreign individuals and companies must negotiate leases with these individuals and communities to use/develop the land and then register the lease with the government. Problems arise because local people may not receive payments for the real value of the land that they are giving up for the next 50-100 years. The author describes cases where communities only receive 1 USD/ha, the entire community is not consulted, the community doesn't understand what is going to be done on the land, the payment is distributed unevenly, absentee landlords and hobby farmers who don't care for their land or let their cattle graze the neighbor's cornfields, leasees don't understand local cultures and so don't get a lease, etc.

The point that jumped out (sorry for the huge tangent) was the belief that economic progress in Mozambique will only come from outside - hence the reference to cargo cults. (Yeah, it's wikipedia, but it's a quick and dirty overview of the topic.) And it wouldn't have struck me as so odd except for the combination of Hu's visit and my conversation with R. about business education with locals.

R. is a British man who teaches business development classes to local residents on Saturdays (He might do other stuff, but that's all we've talked about so far.). He's been working with locally grown churches to help locals (of all faiths) grow their own businesses without outside investment. He told me earlier this week that local people just don't believe that any businesses can succeed without foreign startup funds and support. They tell him that good ideas and funding can only come from the outside. What a sad commentary on your own country (and what a total snowjob past foreigners/experience has done on the mindset of many people here). I wish R. the best of luck in his endeavor.

Hanlon, J. 2004. Renewed land debate and the "cargo cult" in Mozambique. Journal of Southern African Studies 30(3): 603-625.

The photo above was taken at the Museum of Natural History in Maputo. The wood sculpture, carved by a native in the late 1800s/early 1900s, depicts a foreign colonial drinking something - perhaps a gin and tonic?

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