Are you really an IR student if you don’t post at least something about macro-level development in the place you find yourself in?
The answer, apparently, is no. You’re not. So here I go. (Sorry in advance.)
A post like this has been on my heart and in my mind for a while, I’ve just been feeding it over the almost-three-weeks that we’ve been here. I’ve been observing and listening. My social scientist senses have been tingling.
Our first weekend here, Mlola and Kato took us around town to look at different venue ideas for the Mikono Yetu event. Our first stop was the City Mall. It was big, modern-looking, and mostly empty. A Chinese building company has been working on it for about three years now, I’ve been informed. The rows and rows of vacant units are only interrupted by the odd clothing store (most of which looked like they held Indian-style clothing) or Asian phone shop. A supermarket took up a decent portion of the first floor.
We quickly ruled out City Mall as a candidate for our venue. It didn’t fit with the feel of our event, which will seek to celebrate African women and their natural beauty.
City Mall looks out of place. It looks like it shouldn’t be here. Maybe that’s because it shouldn’t be.
I remember walking through the mall, looking at all the unfinished, vacant units, and thinking about development. About the shortcomings of top-down strategies, specifically in African countries, that seek to bring these “underdeveloped” countries up to speed. About how these methods have failed time and time again.
Although I’m often a little more than a little overwhelmed at the marketplaces and by peddlers trying to catch my eye to sell me the various items they’re carrying around, I’ve been fascinated by the differentness in the work world here compared to in Canada. I’m having trouble articulating exactly what I mean by this. The people here start businesses left right and centre. Everyone has a shop. You either sell what you can or you don’t work, in many cases. Everyone is entrepreneurial out of necessity. I spoke with Samira about this about a week ago. I asked her if she noticed that in Mwanza the population was more business-minded (on a micro-level) and that the spirit of entrepreneurship was more alive here than in Canada. Her take on it made sense: people in Tanzania are resourceful. She found the same thing during her time in Madagascar, she told me. We then discussed how we in Canada still work hard, but we have many different work avenues to integrate into. We have life cut out for us, in the sense that our more developed economy can sustain and support us. We don’t have to go out onto the street and sell second-hand clothing from North America to put food on the table. We don’t have to sit on the side of the road with small grills, roasting corn for passersby.
I have a whole new perspective on the differences between developed, diverse economies and young, dysfunctional economies. It makes people resourceful, but it’s a little terrifying.
We ended up with company after having dinner for Iris’s birthday last night. We ran into Luqman and Collin at the Tilapia Hotel, and they joined us for cake. We met both at the pool party last weekend; the party was at Collin’s house. Naturally, the conversation slid to our upcoming safari (WE LEAVE TOMORROW), and then to Tanzania as a whole.
Collin owns a safari business and a car garage. Luqman has a foot in a couple of businesses, and I think he is a partner in a safari company (note: this guy is my age). Both are definitely in the wealthier tier of Mwanza. It was interesting getting their perspective.
Collin shared with us how business in Mwanza always goes terribly. Good restaurants and shops have closed down soon after opening. Tourism businesses never do as well as in Arusha or Dar es Salaam. Chinese businesses can easily push local businesses back or put them under entirely with competitive pricing.
Naturally, I wanted to know why. I pressed for answers, and mumbled my own theories and observations.
Apparently the issue is the people.
Buying things in Dar or out of the country symbolizes status. People are stingy with money and the only tourists that actually spend money are from Asia. I kept pressing for more of an explanation, and both of our guests insisted it was something wrong with the people in Mwanza.
Why is it that such a big, beautiful, growing city can’t hold onto larger restaurants and can’t fill units in a mall?
And why am I investing my time in microbusiness plans and in empowering women through education and business if this is the case in Mwanza? I wasn’t exactly questioning my presence here. I was just bemoaning the prospects of those that I would be interacting with. What did they have to look forward to?
While journaling through some of these ideas last night after getting home, I realized that the answer came later on in that same conversation at the Tilapia. I just didn’t really notice it then.
Collin and I ended up discussing the informal market. He said about 70 percent of the economy in Mwanza is in the informal market. I said that it was probably closer to 80 or 85 percent, and he didn’t disagree. The informal market is made up of any form of economic activity that is unregistered, unlicensed, unregulated. It’s shops on the side of the road, people selling things in stalls in the market, peddlers walking through the streets with a pile of men’s pants thrown over their shoulders.
Basically everywhere in Mwanza is informal economic activity.
Either Nuri or Iris asked Collin if he was part of the informal market. His way of answering was laughing and stating that he paid his taxes. His frustration with Mwanza and its failed economy was rooted in his business experience.
The formal sector is struggling and is mostly fed by the ex-pat community and tourist populations.
The informal market continues to flourish, unregulated and chaotic.
Some of my professors would likely cringe, but I think this is totally fine. Informal markets eventually turn into more sophisticated markets. History has shown that they do, time and time again.
I’m seeing organic development in action. I’m seeing a young economy grow. It will take time, but I’m all for leaving it be. It’s impossible to totally get rid of big business, and larger businesses should be welcomed (although responsibly welcomed). Tourism-based industries are neat if they contribute to the economy and benefit locals. You can’t really keep developers out, but Mwanza doesn’t need them to survive.
And the issue isn’t the people. The issue is how we look at it.
Globalisation is inevitable, and there will always be international influences (whether they be corporate or governmental). But the real issue is the standards that we hold developing countries to.
We think that if a city can fill a mall with stores, then it’s economy is sustainable. We think that if there are restaurants, hotels, regulated stores, and a strong consumer base, that a country is good to go.
Westerners are really good at thinking that if something is familiar, then it’s good.
All I’m really trying to say in this long, dry, rambly post is that seeing development in action is something I never thought it would be.
It’s 100 times cooler than I ever expected.