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.


Helen Evans said...

The number of people who are infested of head lice keeps on increasing.Then they have to visit lice orange county for a proper solution.Thank you

Yasmin El Faki said...

You seem to have a lot of negative things to say about Sudan, but where are the positives? Or at least the solutions to the negatives? You said we should concentrate on the working in the public sector... Okay fine.... Why would anyone do that when the private sector pays more and they are barely able to eat? And if you are so adamant on getting people into the public sector, what is your strategy for doing it?
I apologise if I come off as being overly critical but you said it yourself... You come here once every 3 years... What do you know about the way our country feels? Mashrouy - which got a WHOLE paragraph of criticism - is more than just an entrepreneurship, individualistic, lets-copy-the-west programme... It is an inspiration that your hard work can be rewarded.
It seems to me like you are pointing fingers from your ivory tower, wherever in the 'west' you are... What are you doing to help our people?
I'm not saying you did not bring up some good points... But seriously "the best thing to come out of Sudan"... That is just arrogance and deliberate blindness to the amazing things that can come out of Sudan... Perhaps you don't see it because it is not found in your "social sphere"
Sudan in a beautiful dynamic country that is going through a rough time... Criticising it with no feasible way of fixing it is pointless... Try looking for the positives in 2017; the next time you come here....

Moez Ali said...

Hi Yasmin,
I understand your frustration. I do have a lot of negatives to say about Sudan. Mainly because I tend to notice them. I don't think anyone deliberately chooses to criticise for no good reason. I do have some ideas for solutions to the negatives, if you're willing to listen I'd be more than happy to convey them. Also, I'm not saying people should work in the public sector and get paid less, I'm saying working in the private sector should not be encouraged. There are reasons why ministries and public offices are so inefficient you know. There's also a reason why you always need to know someone to get things done. There's a reason for everything. And in Sudan it usually has to do with the private and public sector.
I don't have to know how a country feels to know whether Mashrouy is good for Sudan or not. It's common sense. It might give people a push, but, it seems to me that it's encouraging people to fend for themselves. I don't think this is helpful for Sudan, or even what's needed. A programme that helps people get working visas in the Gulf states might have the same effect and end result.
I think you're old enough to know that "the best thing to come out of.." is a figure of speech. But yes, it's the first thing about Sudan in a very long time to make me smile, not necessarily have hope, but smile. Amazing things can come out of Sudan like they can come out of every other country, but there are times when realism trumps optimism. And realistically speaking Sudan's woes cannot be fixed in the way our immature minds want it to. We can fantasise about a perfect Sudan all we want, but what's real is its problems, not its thought-of solutions. Think about it, hard.
Sudan is indeed a beautiful country, and so is Afghanistan. That doesn't mean that the Americans aren't bombing children there. Beauty and dynamism are irrelevant to how a country is run. If you haven't noticed, I've been trying to point out the mismanagement, not Sudan's inherent ugliness. Also, accepting that something is wrong is the first step to fixing it, right?
So don't take it to heart, this is not a personal attack on your beloved Sudan. This is a summary of some of the things that I think could be better, much better.
Plus, no one in an ivory tower will be bothered with writing 1500 words.

Reem Gaafar said...

Welcome back. Being a realist (which so many people believe is being a pessimist), I have to agree with pretty much everything you stated. The thing I understand about the banking business in Sudan and why its flourishing so much is because of the Liberal Trade policy the NCP adopted in the early 90s which also encourages the private sector, since theoretically privatization improves the quality of services by creating competition, and other things. Also, the interest rate charged in Sudan is triple that anywhere else, which is why everyone wants to open a bank here. Don't ask me how this helps anyone, because as you mentioned, pretty much everything in Sudan has a narrow and short-term vision without looking at the long-term complications of these decisions and policies. I happen to work in the public sector (I actually left my job in the Gulf and came back to work in the civil service) because I believe this is the best place to be, since its where all the root decisions are made and wide-scale projects are governed. There's a lot of stuff going on here, at least in the health sector. A lot of money coming in, a lot of foreign technical and financial aid, scholarships are being distributed left and right, and business is booming. But, there's no one here. I mean, literally, the offices are empty, and those few people who actually do come to work don't want to do anything because they're so unmotivated. And the public health sector is WAY better than the others, because at least there's some money in it.
I also have to agree with Yasmin, though, because as bad as it looks, its not that bad. There are some good things going on. No, its not perfect, and no, what change is coming isn't coming as fast or as smoothly as we would like, but its there. I've seen it myself. The problem is that no one cares, everyone just wants to get the hell out of this place, no one wants to get down in the dirt and actually do something about it. I can't blame them, really. But if this culture of individualism doesn't change, I don't see any good coming to the country in the near future. It will, just not as soon as we like.

measuredPR said...
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