Columns

Teach a man to fish

Patrick Wilmot

Wednesday, July 04, 2012    

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A few decades ago China was a poor country with hundreds of millions living in abject destitution. Today it is second to America in GDP, the world's number one exporter, and with reserves and capital of almost four trillion dollars. Although America has the most powerful armed forces, it cannot intimidate China, because that country has the economic power to destroy the USA.

Countries with millions of poor citizens should learn the lesson of how China moved from rags to riches, a favoured theme of America's Hollywood mythology. China currently invests billions in creating infrastructure in poor countries, which now have a ready template of how to transform their impoverished nations.

After thousands of years of leading the world in economic production, China fell into catastrophic decline, aided by internal weaknesses and the predation of newly emerging European powers. Its citizens were forced to consume opium by drug-dealing British statesmen, and Europeans put up signs reading "Dogs and Chinese not allowed" outside buildings on Chinese soil.

When they succeeded in expelling European and Japanese invaders, the Chinese retreated into a period of isolation, in which they thought they could rise again solely through their own efforts. But while autarchy was an option when China and India were world economic powers, and technology was limited to local territories, the modern world has global reach.

China was now free but remained poor. When enlightened leaders decided that they had to engage the world, however, they did not err in thinking that foreigners were now angels who should be given the freedom to recolonise their country. Foreigners who wanted to invest had to choose a Chinese partner, who would be taught how to take over when they completed their project.

Chinese workers were not just employees but students who learnt the techniques of foreign scientists, engineers, and construction crews. Technology was not regarded as private property but as conditions for being given access to the local market. The knowledge acquired by local Chinese over the past four decades has now put them at the forefront of production in most fields.

Now that they have acquired wealth, however, they have not spent it all on Rolex watches, Louis Vuitton bags or Gucci shoes. As Europe and America struggle with undercapitalisation, economic recession and unemployment, China is buying up hi-tech industries, adding to their wealth of technology. Europeans now kowtow to China, as their ancestors once forced the colonised to do.

Countries such as Ethiopia, Jamaica and Nigeria which benefit from Chinese investment should follow the Maoist precept that if you give a man a fish he can feed himself for one day. Teach him to fish and he will feed himself for the rest of his life. Local workers should not be intimidated by the sophisticated machines which foreign investors use to construct factories, stadiums or dams.

Unlike primitive crafts which took years to acquire through apprenticeship, modern technology is simple and can be acquired fast. Unlike masonry or dressmaking which require years to learn, modern welders or mechanics can acquire tradecraft in very short order. If government formulates policies to capture technology, their people can become industrial leaders.

Just as the Chinese became capable of mastering technology and dominating their former European and American masters, Jamaicans, Nigerians and Ethiopians now have the opportunity to compete with China. Intelligence, will, organisation and seriousness can transform beggar nations into wealthy leaders.

In ancient times the man or woman in Cuba had no way of knowing what fellow human beings in China or India were accomplishing in industry or culture. More recently Europeans could go to Africa or the Caribbean and act as if they were a different species, superior human beings who had the right to lord it over people they considered subhuman.

Today the Nigerian can see what the Norwegian is doing, study the strengths and weaknesses of Americans, or pity the squalor of Greeks. The world is now an open book where Jamaicans can learn to dominate in track, music and technology. No longer is it necessary to beg the Chinese or French for help in building roads or bridges. Now we all have the means to achieve equality.

Every country in the world can now sell itself if it is willing to use the brains it was born with. Jamaica, for example, has a fantastic Navy Island, which serves almost no purpose in terms of contributing to the wealth of the country. But this is an asset with boundless potential, if only leaders can convince investors with capital to make it into a tourist haven.

The Chinese have trillions in reserves, plus further trillions in private wealth. If investors could be convinced to cover the island with hotels, bars, clubs, marinas and casinos, their people would flock in millions to enjoy the Caribbean sun, sea, sand and other pleasures. Instead of some politicians doing what they shouldn't, they could earn their pay in positive ways.

Patrick Wilmot, who is based in London, is a writer and commentator on African affairs for the BBC, Sky News, Al-Jazeera and CNN.

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