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December 29, 2019

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Big Saturday Read: "Overestimating the new & underestimating the old"

December 7, 2019

 

Earlier this week, I put a simple question to people that I interact with on the social media micro-blogging network, Twitter. I asked them to name one thing which they thought would make the most significant impact upon the lives of people in their village/rural area.

I did not give any pre-conditions. I did not state the reason for asking this question. I did not like, retweet or comment on any of the responses. I wanted it to be as open-ended as possible. I did not wish to steer them in my preferred direction. I’m indebted and grateful to those who responded.

There was a mixed portfolio of responses. I hasten to qualify that it is by no means a scientific assessment of opinion. However, it has served as a useful indicator of thoughts on the subject matter. I said I would explain the reasons behind the inquiry which I now do in this piece.

Fetishising the new over the old

My inquiry was prompted by something fascinating I had read in a brilliant best-selling book by renowned economist Ha-Joon Chang called 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism. “In perceiving changes, we tend to regard the most recent ones as the most revolutionary,” he writes, which “is often at odds with the facts”. He warns against the tendency to “underestimate the old and overestimate the new”.

Ha-Joon Chang’s Thing 4 of the 23 that he critiques in his book is provocatively entitled thus: “The washing machine has changed the world more than the internet has”. He challenges widely-held notions over the revolutionary impact of the internet, arguing that the washing machine has been far more impactful. While acknowledging its undoubted impact, he points out that in relative terms older technologies have had far greater and more socially and economically far-reaching impact so far than the internet.

Ha-Jan Chang gives the example of the telegraph, a 19th century invention which cut down the amount of time for sending a message from England to the US from 2-3weeks by ship to 7/8 minutes, a factor of 2,500 times. By contrast the internet cut down the time to send a similar message from 10 seconds by fax to 2 seconds, a factor of 5 times. He concedes that there is more that can be done via the internet but the acceleration impact of the telegraph was stupendous for its time.

More interesting is his illustration of how the washing machine (and other household technologies) revolutionised social dynamics both at family level and in the labour market. The washing machine did more than just relieve humans from the labour of doing laundry. Its impact has been socially and economically fundamental. He quotes statistics showing that the washing machine cut down washing a load of 17 kilograms from 4 hours manually to just 41 minutes.

Symbolism of the washing machine

 

But he is only using the washing machine in symbolic terms. Other household technologies such as the hoovering machine made cleaning the household easier and quicker. The gas and electric stove relieved humans from the hard labour of fetching wood, cutting and storing it, making the fire and cleaning.

These technologies freed women who were largely confined to such domestic services and liberated them to participate in the wider labour market and in the process raised their status. Increased participation in the labour market opened avenues for investment in women’s education which also raised their participation in the labour market.

Ha-Joon Chang acknowledges the influence of other non-technology factors including the pill which helped promote choice and birth control. He might also have added the social struggles which promoted the rights of women including the right to vote which is just 100 years old in England. Nevertheless his point about the significant impact of household technologies remains relevant.

Whether Ha-Joon Chang is right in his comparison between the washing machine and the internet is a matter for debate but it should not detain us. It may well be that some look at it and say his judgment of the impact of the internet are too hasty compared to the washing machine which has had a longer period in operation, a point that he rightly concedes. But that is not the most important element. What is critical is the warning against undue attention to new technologies at the expense of the old-fashioned ones.

Why it matters

Ordinary people can hold differing opinion on this without much consequence for others. It is different when it comes to decision-making by those in government or international agencies. Their opinions have greater impact beyond themselves and affect large parts of society. It matters because their opinion impacts how they allocate scarce resources. Ha-Joon Chang is warning that policy-makers shouldn’t be easily swayed by a fascination with the new at the expense of the old, which might be a better option in the circumstances.

Ha-Joon Chang refers to the problem of the so-called “post industrial society” in big Western countries which has led to governments neglecting manufacturing industries in favour of an ideas-based economy. He is also concerned that at international level, there is a fascination with the so-called “digital divide” between the rich and poor countries so that resources end up being allocated to providing ICT when communities are in need of more basic things like clean water and sanitation.

“The question, however, is whether this [computers and internet] is what the developing countries need the most. Perhaps giving money for those less fashionable things such as digging wells, extending electricity grids and making more affordable washing machines would have improved people’s lives more than giving every child a laptop computer or setting up internet centres in rural villages,” he writes. In this he is putting a word of advice to donors that resources might be used in alternative ways that have better immediate and long term benefits although they may not be in vogue.

What would impact the village?

It was against this background that I asked the question. I wanted to know what a sample of fellow Zimbabweans on social media regarded as things that would make a significant impact on the lives of the people. I used the villages as the location of inquiry but it could have been anywhere in the country. Most Zimbabweans have a rural home and historically these rural areas have been economically deprived zones. However, various factors including high rural-urban migration and resultant pressure on urban infrastructure as well as general economic decline have led to deterioration of urban spaces in recent decades. The same question could therefore be posed in relation to urban areas.

The responses were a mixed bag. However, I observed that the preponderance of opinion proposed practical and old-fashioned technologies compared to what might be regarded new and more fashionable technologies. There were inevitably suggestions for currently fashionable technologies such as computers and internet-related solutions. However, these suggestions were outshone by old-fashioned technologies such as piped water, energy, agricultural technologies, infrastructure and basic services such as healthcare and education.

The political

 

I should point out however that there was a fair number of what may be classified as “political” responses, which focused on the political dynamics in the country. The range of the political is wide and diverse. It includes suggestions for changing the political leadership to promoting a more informed and free electorate. “ZANU PF must go and everything else will follow” one suggested, reflecting an opinion shared by a fair number of respondents. The more general opinion was that there was a need to open up sources of information so that rural communities would be better informed. This would presumably enable them to make better political decisions.

Others thought traditional leaders were a constraint on rural communities and should be reformed or removed altogether. There were some at the extreme end of the spectrum, suggesting that rural voters should be removed from the franchise altogether presumably on the basis that they cannot be trusted with political decision-making. Still others thought what is required are reforms, presumably referring to political reforms.

When I asked the question I did not think political “things” would feature in the responses. This was obviously because I had seriously underestimated the intensity of the political narrative in our society. The ubiquitous nature of the political narrative accounts for a predominant belief that every problem is rooted in politics and therefore, that every solution must be found in politics.

However, while there is much weight in the view that there is need for political reform, there is also a risk of overestimating its impact. It is very important and it scores strong political points in a bitterly polarised society, but it can be misleading if it lacks nuance. It has been said a man wielding a hammer will treat every problem as if it were a nail. The warning in this cliché has to be heeded. There is more that can very easily be concealed by the narrative of political reforms, its importance notwithstanding.

If political reform concerns the way in which the government allocates resources, then one might argue it is economically nuanced and more helpful. After all, the allocation of scarce resources in society is always a political choice made by political actors. However, if it is merely about a change in personalities in charge of the country, without change in the underlying approach to the allocation of resources, it will not be very helpful. 

Zimbabwe itself is living proof of this circumstance. The change from Robert Mugabe to Emmerson Mnangagwa as leader has not been accompanied by any change in political choices regarding how they allocate scarce resources. Mnangagwa is still distributing fish to rural communities instead of fishing rods to enable them to find fish on their own. Mnangagwa is still misallocating scarce resources for purposes of patronage. This is why he readily allocated scarce resources to buy vehicles for chiefs at the expense of healthcare facilities in the rural areas. A chief can drive himself to the nearest pub while a patient in his region struggles to get to the hospital because there are no ambulances.

 

Many African countries, from Cote D’lvoire to Zambia, have had changes in political leadership without associated changes to the lives of their people at the local level. I was therefore more interested in practical-oriented “things” beyond amorphous political factors. The list of what I have categorised as “non-political” suggestions was impressively diverse. Before I pick a few of them for further consideration, I must list the suggestions that appeared regularly:

Clean water, irrigation, agricultural mechanisation, renewable energy, roads, access to markets, sanitation, healthcare, education, supplementary nutrition, dip tanks, Internet and computers, title deeds.

These were all very practical propositions, the majority of them being basic old-fashioned technologies. Prior to the exercise, I was keen to see whether there would be a preponderance of suggestions that were ICT or Internet-related, i.e. the more modern technologies. After all, I was asking this question to a social media audience which presumably places considerable value on the power of ICT and internet-based technologies. It was pleasant to see that the majority was more concerned with basic, old-fashioned technologies listed above.

Now, I want to pick two of these old-fashioned technologies and briefly consider how they could revolutionise lives in rural communities: piped water and renewable energy. The good thing about these two is that they impact agriculture, which is the mainstay of rural economies. This is important not just for governments but also for international agencies and donors that have interests in assisting local communities. 

Water

Technologies relating to water were by far the most popular suggestion and for good reason. Some referred to clean water for drinking. Others simply said boreholes while some called for dams, including rehabilitation of silted dams. There were suggestions for harvesting rain water, which makes sense in a country afflicted by erratic rainfall patterns. Others suggested irrigation technologies, which naturally relate to water.

 

All of these suggestions pointed to the vitality of water in rural communities. One would be hard-pressed to find anything more essential in the life of a community than water. It serves multiple purposes, from household needs to both agriculture and industrial activities. So much progress can be achieved when the potential of water is properly harnessed and channeled in the right direction.  

Ha-Joon Chang tells us that according to the UNDP's estimates the average woman in the developing world spends up to 2 hours a day fetching water. Most of those who perform this difficult and cumbersome chore are young girls who should be attending school. All too often, water sources are unsafe and located far away from home. Unclean water is the source of many diseases, a great cost to society and the threadbare heath-care system. . 

Piped water would not only save time and free women and girls to do other things but it would also ensure safe supplies. Clean water would also reduce cases of water-borne diseases such as typhoid and cholera. This would not only reduce pressure on the healthcare system but also ensure a healthy and active labour force and better lives.

Piped water will also provide better sanitation facilities even if it starts with communal toilets, laundry and bathing facilities. It would help small businesses which require large amounts of water, such as brick manufacturing. Indeed, water for irrigation would power an agricultural revolution which has so far eluded most of the rural areas in developing countries. It's all well and good to embrace the newest technologies but skipping the agricultural revolution is not wise.

 

The life of rural communities is inextricably tied to the land and this requires heavy investment in basic water technologies. But we read terrible stories of corruption from the country's Auditor General. Solutions Motors, a company that was contracted to buy vehicles and irrigation equipment for the Department of Irrigation was given vast amounts of cash, but it failed to deliver the goods. Yet not a single person has been prosecuted for the fraud and not a single penny has been paid back. It is this misallocation of resources that is at the heart of our underdevelopment.  


The benefits of reliable water supplies in rural communities cannot be overstated. This is the technology that the government and its partners ought to focus on if the land reform program is to bear success. There was a time when former president, Robert Mugabe went around rural schools donating computers and related equipment. One wonders what became of this technology in a country without power. It was a fad that has since passed. But imagine the impact if the government had invested in simple water technologies even in half the communities that got those computers.

Renewable Energy

The same can be said of renewable energy. The country is blessed with abundant sunshine all year round. Countries that receive less amounts of sunshine annually are generating more energy. Electricity would not only power homes for cooking, reducing reliance on wood fire and therefore impacting positively on the environment. Many are complaining of deforestation as people cut down more trees for firewood.

Lighting homes would increase time in which to do tasks and also help students studying at night. There might even be opportunities for extra teaching at night. The rural economy might grow as people move from urban areas to retire or just to develop their rural homes. Even those who aspire to develop ICT in rural areas would do so from a solid base.

More significantly the combination of electricity and water would help revolutionise agriculture in rural areas, helping communities to grow crops all year round while keeping food fresh for the markets.

Conclusion

The purpose of this article is not to dismiss new technologies, no. They are important. However, caution is needed to avoid fetishising new technologies while neglecting old-fashioned but essential technologies that have both immediate and far-reaching impact on communities. The tragedy is that these old fashioned technologies such as piped water and electricity have become a luxury even for urban communities who have long taken them for granted.

Why does it matter? It matters because it affects political choices over the allocation of resources by governments and international donors. As Ha-Joon Chang says “Human beings tend to be fascinated by the newest and most visible technologies.” But they may not be what society needs at that particular point in time.

Here, we are reminded of the debate that followed the presentation of the national budget statement in November this year. Finance Minister Mthuli Ncube announced plans for the launch of a space satellite. Many were astounded by this proposition. His supporters thought the criticism was based on ignorance and therefore, unwarranted.

But the criticism was not because we did not understand the utility of satellite technology. The bone of contention was whether it was an appropriate allocation of scarce resources given competing needs. Satellite technology might help farmers, but what’s the point when they lack access to markets because of poor roads or when they have no access to water and energy for irrigation?

 

A government that cares for development of local communities will not fall for the allure of new fashionable technologies. It will, instead invest in the basics technologies. They may be old-fashioned and they might have less sparkle, but they have long-lasting and real impact on the lives of the people. Developed societies did not get to where they are by accident of history. They harnessed and exploited these basic technologies - ensuring communities had access to water, energy, mechanisation and markets. 

WaMagaisa

 

wamagaisa@me.com 

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