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Opinions of Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Columnist: Tawiah-Benjamin, Kwesi

A Shoemaker’s Economic Model

First scenario: An agricultural scientist from Israel was contracted by a West-African country to help them boost their food production. The Israeli signed a contract involving lots of money in consultancy payments. Initially he wondered how a country that could not feed itself could put together the heavy sum, but he decided to complement their efforts with his expertise. He also hoped the experience would enrich his knowledge.

He was received at the airport with impressive pomp and whisked to plush accommodation in a pricy hotel. The following morning, a helicopter lifted him for an aerial tour of the country. He sat quietly during the tour, observing the fresh, green land the country is blessed with. When the copter touched down, the surroundings had been made even fresher with rain. He also saw rivers, green forests and a vast arable land.

Expensive lunch had been served. Ministers were seated. Journalists had gathered to report the recommendations by the expert. They waited while the food got cold. Then they waited. The Israeli had sneaked out of the hotel for the airport, wearing a pair of shorts and his sandals. But he was kind enough to have left a handwritten note with the hotel receptionist: “You don’t need me to show you how to farm. In my country, we farm on rocky lands, and have enough to export.” He also left the cheque he had been paid.

Second scenario: A millionaire Scottish entrepreneur likes to call himself a global citizen. He is consumed with guilt when he sees images of malnourished African children on television. He wants to help. He invites the finance minister of an African country to discuss a joint project that would see both countries learn from each other and improve on their fortunes. The African minister came with his wife in a big entourage.

While in Scotland, the minister’s wife went on a shopping spree. One of the stores where she swooped items from aisles in bales is owned by the Scottish host. Meanwhile her husband sat with the millionaire in his office, discussing the mutual benefits of the project and the amount involved. The project would require a follow up visit to Scotland and two feasibility, fact-finding tours in the African country. The minister departed.

The millionaire would discover from company accounts that the amount of money his guest had spent on shopping is more than half the total amount required for the joint Scotland-Africa project. His store manager and sales girls had received generous donations in tips from the minster’s wife. There was talk of similar sprees in other stores. The millionaire decided to halt the project. Meanwhile an African delegation to the second half of the project had already been assembled, which included travel-hungry Africans who had no knowledge of the project. They had paid good money to sneak out.

Last Scenario: In a certain country, the finance minister and his government are embarking on a serious cost-cutting measure, to invest more in healthcare and education. Government expenditure, including all financial transactions in the Prime Minister’s office are reduced to half, and periodically published for all to see. It gets so serious that photographs at functions are reduced to only one. Instead of buying a new pair of shoes to replace his old one, the finance minister goes to a shoemaker’s shop to resole the old shoes, just like we did years ago. He does not cut the typical profile of a rich politician because there is no ostentation around his person. His mandate is to work, do more work, and work even harder. The objective is to use his public office to better the private lives of people. His mission is to make the policies of his government work in people’s lives.

What lessons can the ministers in the earlier scenarios learn from the shoemaker experience of the other minister in the last scenario? The countries of the ministers in the earlier scenarios are behind 250 years in development. There is no social protection for the poor. Schools are held under trees and there is no middle class. Instead, there is the poor who live in the very abyss of depravity, surviving on less than a dollar a day in dire economic situations. There are no jobs for their youth and children of school-going age sell by the road side and in the middle of traffic. Health facilities are so inadequate that women in labour have no beds to sleep in. These countries are going back in development while the world they live in is advancing in science and technology.

Yet, they live large: Does a preacher of the gospel need four private jets to do the work of God in a poor country? Raise a curious voice in honest disapproval and you are the accuser of the brethren. The Lord has blessed Him. What about the millions in the same country who have no public toilets and no jobs to do? They must have been cursed. What use is a million dollars in a land where only cowries are used? That is what it means for a few proletariats to live large in the midst of tribunes. There would always be reason, often a good reason, to accuse the brethren. And the brethren should hear the accusers.

To reduce the 250 year gap by even a year, we would learn to go to the cobbler to resole our old shoes, instead of spending money and time to import the latest designer make from rich countries. That is cost-cutting. That is cutting expenditure. Ironically, the millionaires in the rich countries have no time to buy and wear the expensive items. Like the Israeli agric expert in the first scenario, they walk in shorts and sandals. Where they cannot walk, they ride their bicycles to their laboratories to research into things. Where they cannot ride, they drive cars built and assembled by their engineers.

Meanwhile, back to the country in our first scenario, intensive investigations have been initiated into what government spokespersons described as the ‘disappearance’ of the Israeli agric expert. Hotel staff have been quizzed and accused of negligence for allowing a government contact to leave their premises without official permission. The hotel manager has bluntly been told that he would not be engaged for future government deals. This was after he had been detained for several hours during investigations. A committee of inquiry headed by a former high court judge has been tasked to look into the matter.

There is also trouble in the second scenario. The travel-angry people, who had paid large sums to misrope in the government delegation to Scotland, are on the offensive. Some are threatening to go public if their money is not paid. ‘They had been told: ‘Go head, do your worst, and you will see where you will end.’ The most aggressive ones have been promised a juicier deal coming up in a few months. Back in Scotland, the millionaire is planning to open another branch of his chain in New York and France. And he did.

Kwesi Tawiah-Benjamin, Ottawa, Canada,