Monday, 3 March 2014

Countdown timers on traffic lights, Mashrouy and other unfortunate things

My recent trip to Sudan was disappointing, mainly because I missed a lot of events and didn't get to see Rashid Diab's Art Centre. I’ve been away from Sudan for more than three years before going back last December. I had the unfortunate opportunity of visiting again about a week ago. Sudan is a funny place. Not “haha” funny, but treacherous underachievement funny. Khartoum has expanded significantly in the last two decades, albeit haphazardly. Land is abundant, and people are buying it left, right and centre. Roads connect the expansions. I say roads but they’re actually lumps of tarmac on minimal foundations steamrolled into perfect unevenness. It’s like the bumps are deliberate. The roads make areas accessible, and make hitherto worthless houses more investment worthy, because they’re “on a road.” So people invest; in houses, land, apartment buildings, whatever can be purchased – almost everything mind you. At the same time, old roads are constantly losing shape. So, new roads lead to new houses, and old roads lead to, well, not very far. This will continue, the new roads will eventually become the old roads, and the chaotic expansion of Khartoum will reach the border with Eritrea.
What’s baffling is the constant expansion. Other than not making sense, this expansion has instilled a sense of achievement among the masses. Many people think we’ve come a long way, you know, because we have roads and shit. I stumbled upon a theory in Khartoum; it’s not really a theory, I just figured this ought to be how people measure betterment. The theory goes: development is directly proportional to the annual percentage increase of restaurants in Khartoum.  The more restaurants there are, the further we’ve come. There is a shit load of new colleges too. You can earn a diploma in Business Administration or Computer Technology for as low as $3 a term. I’m exaggerating. But they’re plenty. I’m not against the proliferation of educational institutes, but since the privatisation of the education system, there has been a surge in below standard university openings, almost as much as restaurants. Restaurants have the upper hand as colleges tend to have restaurants and vice versa is impossible, so far at least. So here’s the issue, what happens when most of your population is getting poorly educated, regardless of the language it’s being taught in? I’ll tell you what happens, Mashrouy happens. More on that later.
Life in Sudan seems to be moving forward though. It might be a bit of a stretch to claim that business is booming, but bank loans are being handed out like leaflets at a political rally. When I left Sudan in 2010 there were a handful of private banks, now, apparently, there are 34. There’s a new bank in every corner in the capital city. I noticed this, hence the investigation. They’re all doing business apparently, big business too. But with whom? As far as I’m concerned Sudan is a net importer of food, oil, agricultural produce, bathroom slippers, toothbrushes, and, according to Usama Daoud, powdered milk. So who are the banks giving loans to? And how are the repayments being made? I can only imagine that in some way or another people are being traded in, maybe those that chill on the steps in front of houses. I’ve been trying, very hard, for some time now to understand how the Sudanese economy functions, but I’m still clueless. I asked a friend who works in a bank, he said he didn’t know. So if you do know, please step forward and provide an explanation. Please.
Then there’s this. If you’re fortunate enough to get into a car in Sudan you will notice that every traffic light in Khartoum has a countdown timer. I never understood the idea behind countdown timers, I mean, you’re going to wait anyway, it doesn’t matter whether you know how long you’ve got left or not. But that’s not the problem. Having a countdown timer on a traffic light in Khartoum is like a bald person putting on hair gel. That’s not how the world works. There are so many things wrong with Sudan, whether I know I’m going to wait 30 seconds at the light or not is hardly the issue. This is a recurring theme in most things Sudan; un-necessity.
There’s another recurring theme; individualism. More than three quarters of the people I know are self employed, the other quarter work in large private organisations. I know one person who works for a public institution, and he doesn’t count. Look around you; think about the people you know in your generation and the generation before yours. Right? Right? No one works in the public sector, no one. There are reasons of course. The public sector is underfunded because the government is, well, underfunding it, the private sector is much more funded and offers better opportunities for self development, the public sector’s entry requirements are as negligible as those of a corner shop, etc. While the reasons are well known and understood, their implications have been overlooked.
In 1956, in the year of Sudan’s independence, only 2.5% of Sudan’s population lived in Khartoum. Even so, the majority of Khartoum’s population resided in Omdurman. Khartoum was where the state institutions were, and where people came to attend university. This meant that those who did end up in university – or the public sector after attending university – came from very humble backgrounds. After completing university, whether in Sudan or abroad, the majority ended up working in the public sector. Mainly because the government was the biggest employer back then, but also because the government provided for everyone’s education. Either way, the country’s human capital was concentrated in the public sector. Now, however, even those who are able to afford decent education abroad come back and work in the private sector. Most of us who can afford decent education abroad lead relatively comfortable lives, which translates into a lack of responsibility towards general wellbeing due to a distorted perspective. The private sector’s contribution to development in a country like Sudan, other than providing jobs, is negligible. The private sector has no responsibility towards the country whatsoever. Even if we assume there exists some degree of enforced liability. And, inadvertently, working in the private sector will benefit the individual more than the country. So here’s our problem: nowadays the country’s well educated and well trained individuals end up in the private sector, which automatically weakens the public sector (because it gets the rest), making the public sector less desirable for anyone who’s qualified enough to get into the private sector (because it’s better structured and more financially rewarding), which is a consequence of people choosing more self-serving jobs, which leads to individualism. And individualism is bad for a country like Sudan. Hence why we have projects like Mashrouy.
Mashrouy is a television ccontest that rewards entrepreneurship. Twelve contestants present their business ideas that are then scrutinised by the panel of judges. Of the twelve, six are chosen after some challenges. Three contestants from the remaining six will be chosen to go on air, a winner will then be chosen by the viewers. The first prize is 200,000 SDG, and the second and third prizes are 150,000 SDG and 100,000 SDG respectively. I found this silly. Other than the fact that it’s blatant mimicking of Western television programs, another failure to comprehend the difference between the developed world and the Third world, at best it’s a short-term fix. Entrepreneurship, the type unconsciously being championed by the organisers of the contest, requires solid foundations.  At this level, entrepreneurship will only succeed if the foundations are there for it to succeed. In Sudan, and the Third world, entrepreneurship is more widespread than in the developed world. This is a fact that the organisers of the project failed to see. There’s entrepreneurship everywhere you look: tea ladies, cigarettes and mobile credit vendors, food vendors, mechanics, traffic light vendors who sell anything from mobile phone chargers to pillows. This is entrepreneurship out of necessity. The entrepreneurship being supported through Mashrouy will eventually lead to an individualistic perspective on life and on careers. Third world countries like Sudan can’t survive with individualism. And sooner or later, in a country where the rule of law is as fragile as Omar Al Bashir’s self esteem, one will face obstacles of some sort; obstacles that are a direct consequence of political mismanagement. Plus, there are a lot of negatives in promoting business in a badly governed environment. Those among us with influence should be directing people away from individualism, not towards it. We should be encouraging activities that benefit society more than the individual. This type of entrepreneurship in Sudan is like the countdown timers on the traffic lights. It might even be worse, because there’s a huge chance that it’s potentially harmful.
I have no doubt that more and more people now have fewer and fewer electricity cuts, there are new roads, more people have mobile phones, there are more cars on the road, there are more colleges, even more fat people. But the fact of the matter is that the electricity comes from the Merowe hydroelectric dam funded by Kuwait, the new roads cancel out with the state of the old roads, Chinese mobile phones are cheap and hence indicate nothing, most of the cars on the road are bought on unsupervised loans, all the new colleges and universities are below standard, and the fat people are actually unemployed thin people. It might seem Sudan is going somewhere, but it's actually not; maybe to the corner shop to chill. It gets worse. In a country where the more educated end up in the private sector (or abroad), I don’t see what can be done in the near future. Whoever said Sudan’s problems are purely political is as myopic as those who sit on Mashrouy’s panel. You can’t stop the countdown timers from infesting our traffic lights, but you can chose not to support private sector oriented projects, no matter what good they claim to achieve. Short term fixes are exactly that, short term. Oh, and the banks, f*** the banks.
On a more positive note, this is by far the best thing to come out of Sudan in a while. Please check it out.

Btw, I still want that explanation. I would say it’s because of my poor grasp of economics, but I have a feeling no one knows what’s going on.