While education is necessary, is it sufficient?
Africa Must Produce or Perish
We trim and append this 2008 Africa Day speech by a native Nigerian delivered in Spain. The author won the 1989 Gordon Bell Prize of supercomputing.
by Philip EmeagwaliImagine that it is May 25, 2063, the 100th anniversary of Africa Day, a day for reflecting on Africa’s successes and failures. The newspaper headline announces, “Last Remaining Oilfield in West Africa’s American Territory Dries Up.”
The article continues: “The last patch of rainforest will soon be empty land scarred by oil pipelines, pumping stations, and natural gas refineries. Wholesale pollution will be the environmental legacy for future generations.
“Africa’s offshore oil reserves will ebb away. Abandoned oil wells could well become tourist attractions, and oil-boom settlements will be transformed into derelict ghost towns.”
We know oil exists in limited quantities and that most oil wells dry up after 40 years. It is as certain as death and taxes. Rather than debate the exact year when we will run out of oil, imagine that we have already run out. We should ask, “When will Africa be unable to export raw materials, either for lack of our own oil or because foreign markets have themselves dried up?”
A $100 bar of raw iron is worth $200 when forged into drinking cups in Africa, $65,000 when forged into needles in Asia, $5 million when forged into watch springs in Europe. How can this be? European intellectual capital -- the collective knowledge of its people -- allows a $100 raw iron bar to command a 50,000-fold increase!
Without African intellectual capital, iron excavated in Africa will continue to be manufactured in Europe and exported back to Africa at enormous cost. Africa needs to cultivate creative and intellectual abilities that will allow it to increase the value of its raw materials. Selling value-added goods helps break the continent’s vicious cycle of poverty.
In oil-exporting African nations, multinationals such as Shell (selling rigs for a 40% royalty on exported oil) are getting rich, while the oil rig workers remain poor. Instead of addressing the underlying causes of poverty, Third World leaders give false hope to their people. We need less talk about poverty and more action to eliminate it.
Education has done more to reduce poverty than all the oil companies in the world. Intellectual capital engenders new technologies which creates new products. The end result will be not just a redistribution of wealth, but the creation and control of new wealth.
One catalyst for such prosperity could be telecommuting. If 300 million Africans could work for companies located in the West (just as millions of Indians do), then both regions would benefit. The strategy would be to recognize the labor needs of the global marketplace, and enable Africa to fulfill those needs.
For decades, power in post-colonial Africa rested in the hands of those with guns, not those with brains. We were not always at war with our neighbors, but we were always at war with poverty. Yet we spent more on guns than on books and bread.
Africa’s choice is clear: produce or perish. Africa will perish if it continues to consume what it does not produce, and produce what it does not consume. We have a golden opportunity to use the trillion dollars earned by exporting natural resources to break Africa’s cycle of poverty.
When we do that, Africa will finally be eating the fruits of its own labor. My wish is that by the end of the 21st century high-end products in New York City will sport the label: “Made in Africa.” And, like a rainforest renewed, Africa will flourish again.
JJS: This restates the old, “teach a man to fish …” However, most poor people know how to fish (or could easily learn). What they lack is access to the fishing hole.
Of course poor people lack skills, but more fundamental they lack of access to land, locations for both agriculture and extraction. Where government collects “rent” -- the annual rental value of land -- there owners do not hoard land. With a greater supply of available land, there locations are affordable for all users.
Public recovery of rent has worked wherever tried. Able to produce for themselves, families climb out of poverty and educate their children. Then the cycle the author sees can begin, on a basis of just land tenure.
Jeffery J. Smith runs the Forum on Geonomics.
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