Talking (or writing) about famine can elicit unexpected reactions, including jokes. There was this one reported in the Tanzanian Mail on Sunday of 7/8/2011 by a correspondent on the current famine in East Africa.
It went something like this: When the Rwandan leaders want to start an important project, they send an official to attend a seminar it Tanzania and as sure as night follows day, he will come across a bored Tanzanian researcher who has a complete blueprint somewhere with the complete designs for the project in question. The generous Tanzanian blows the dust off the binder containing the study, gives it to the Rwandan free of charge and forgets about it. A couple of years later, everybody in the region joins in the praise of Rwanda for the brilliant, innovative project taking shape in the small country.
I do not know whether this joke is told in praise of Rwanda’s smartness or in condemnation of Tanzania going to sleep on valuable information. I do not even know whether this is meant to show how brilliant Tanzanian researchers are, but how inept their government is. Whatever the intention is, it brings out very important issues about development.
It shows that you need information to base your plans on and that you have the ability to use it. You must recognise current and future challenges – whether they are about food security, climate change, information technology, or governance and make appropriate plans, and more importantly implement them.
This is where Rwanda gets smart. Where the information comes from is immaterial. If studies that deal with a specific issue exist elsewhere, why, they can be used. After all, there is no need to reinvent the wheel.
I am sure they can only do this if they have thought hard about an issue and need answers. The next logical step is to design a plan that will provide a solution, and there should be no limitations about where that should come from. If it comes from within, well and good; if from outside, no harm. Indeed, contrary to the views of cynics or apologists for laggards, many of the solutions to Rwanda’s development issues are home-grown; resulting from inquiry that often delves into the country’s history.
But, of course, if scholars and technocrats from Tanzania or elsewhere have developed plans that they do not know what to do with, it is only sensible that the product of so much intellectual effort should not be put to waste. A useful neighbour will help out. And if after a while the “bored” researcher and politicians realise the value of their work, why, they have a working example to point to and emulate.
That is what good neighbourliness is all about.
Looked at differently and without intellectual pettiness, no country in this world has ever developed solely on ideas generated by its citizens. They have borrowed, bought, copied or stolen ideas and blueprints. The more powerful have used various methods to lure the smartest people to their countries. The less strong, but far-sighted, send their brightest to learn from developments in other countries.
Only a fool does not learn from others. Only the dim-witted think they have all the answers. It does not take long for them to realise that others actually have similar or better answers.
The joke also reveals a disconnect between politicians and technocrats in the search for practical solutions to Africa’s development. Where political performance is measured by the severity of tongue-lashing real or imaginary opponents, there is little incentive to tax the brain with complicated plans and strategies. Why bother with blueprints when you know your upward mobility depends more on intrigue, sycophancy and pulling down others? In any case your political superiors will not notice because they are also busy finding a foothold on the ladder.
Let the technocrats produce papers and blueprints; that’s what they are paid for.
The result is predictable: bored, dispirited and disgusted researchers sad to see their valuable work gather dust. Would you blame anyone curious enough to pick it up, blow off the dust and use it? At least here is recognition for the effort of the researcher.
In some of our bigger countries, there is a false assumption that their size is insurance against the problems some of the smaller countries face. There are huge expanses of unused land and untapped resources and so on. But quite often, this turns out to be a fallacy. Size and adequacy are not directly proportional.
This sense of false security (actually, insecurity) leads to the fallacious thought that other people covet your huge resources, especially land. In turn, this leads to the jingoism we have been seeing lately. For instance Tanzanian Home Affairs Minister, Shamsi Nahodha blamed insecurity in the Ngara region on Rwandan immigrants. At about the same time, Member of Parliament, Charles Mwijage claimed that President Paul Kagame was sending Rwandan pastoralists into Tanzania.
Both officials have misplaced their concerns. Instead of trying to whip up nationalistic emotions (everyone knows the effects of xenophobia), they should have put their time to better use by designing plans for utilising the resources in North-western Tanzania. That way, no development blueprint would be lying around for anyone to pick for free.