Tell me there’s a heaven

The little girl she said to me
What are these things that I can see
Each night when I come home from school
When mama calls me in for tea
On every night a baby dies
And every night a mama cries
What makes those men do what they do
To make that person black and blue

South Africa has a population of 45 million. 11 million have AIDS. 40% of the working-age population, 8.5 million people, are unemployed. There is a very limited social-welfare system. Every winter, as now, the millions of people living in lean-too shacks suffer in ways that do not bear describing. Crime figures, just released, show that our murder-rate – already amongst the highest in the world – places us above war-zones like Iraq.

South Africa’s economy is the largest in Africa and we are the wealthiest and most successful nation on the continent.

Grandpa says they’re happy now
They sit with God in paradise
With angels wings and still somehow
It makes me feel
Like ice

The world has changed quite considerably in the past 100 years. Oil, for instance. 100 years ago it was just mucky black stuff that came out the ground.

Economists describe trade as arising from the asymmetric distribution of resources. We wouldn’t really need to trade with people thousands of miles away but they happen to have stuff we need that we don’t have. 100 years ago that was less prevalent. But larger populations, the increasing sophistication of society and technological advancement has meant that minor asymmetries 100 years ago have become major asymmetries now.

Ones we’re prepared to go to war over. Ones we have no choice but to go to war over.

What was the largest and most destructive war in the last decade?

No, not Iraq. It was the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo fought between Namibia, Zimbabwe and Angola on the one side, and Uganda and Rwanda on the other. South Africa brokered a tacit peace. But not before almost 4 million people had been savagely murdered. Did you know about it? The war covered an area larger than Europe.

Tell me there’s a heaven
Tell me that it’s true
Tell me that there’s a reason
Why I’m seeing what I do
Tell me there’s a heaven
Where all those people go
Tell me that they’re happy now
Papa tell me that it’s so

Trade isn’t something that happens because major corporations wish to exploit the poor or destroy the environment. There is no such independent beast as a “corporation”. There are just different communities of people. Some good, some bad, some selfish, some astonishingly generous. Sometimes they can be all these things in a single day.

When a US citizen screams at a corporation for sending jobs off-shore so that foreigners can “steal” them then you’re accusing me of theft. You’re accusing every poor, disenfranchised, and unskilled foreigner of “taking” from you. Taking? The way you’re happy to “take” our minerals that make your motor-cars, that make your mobile phones? Isn’t it a trade? We trade you these goods for jobs?

How do the same people that sing along at a Live Earth concert, demanding universal action to safeguard our future, also refuse the very things that will safeguard that future for the people who need it most?

Tell me how rich Americans, Canadians and Europeans intend to save the world? Tell me who and what is going to create the wealth that will end the depredation, torture, brutality, poverty and neglect in Africa and Asia? Is it concerts? Is it charitable donations? Is it high-sounding poetry? Or is it going to be skills, know-how and jobs created by foreign entrepreneurs seeing the opportunity to invest where it is most needed?

Will you, in order to safeguard your own lifestyles, push all the suffering and hardship onto us? Do you think that, when we get angry and frustrated, we bother to recognise who voted what? Do you think that a people brutalised by cold and hunger care a jot about global warming? Or environmental destruction? Or human rights? Do you really believe that this suffering is caused by companies that manufacture tyres, and sports shoes, and washing machines?

Tell me how your protectionism, how your subsidies to your farmers to prevent ours from competing with you, how your supporting of our most corrupt of leaders through charity and concerts, is supposed to end suffering?

Tell me, are we really all one world?

So do I tell her that it’s true
That there’s a place for me and you
Where hungry children smile and say
We wouldn’t have no other way
That every painful crack of bone
Is a step along the way
That every wrong done is a game plan
To that great and joyful day
And I’m looking at the father and the son
And I’m looking at the mother and the daughter
And I’m watching them in tears in pain
And I’m watching them suffer
Don’t tell that little girl
Tell me

Chris Rea, Tell me there’s a heaven

15 replies »

  1. Yes, Gavin, I did know about the war in the Congo. And every tantalum capacitor I use in my day job as an electrical engineer reminds me of it.

  2. One of the main reasons I wanted you on the S&R team – and why I’d like more non-Americans on the team – is because we know so little about things that “don’t affect us” because they happen “over there.” Education solves all….

  3. Gavin,

    The fundamental problem with your post is that investment and job creation doesn’t automatically lead to wealth creation. Even in America, the wealthiest nation in the world, the majority of working people don’t have enough income, assets, and equity to be considered “wealthy,” and that’s due to a myriad number of factors–conspicuous consumption in depreciating goods like televisions, cars, and clothes,astronomical levels of debt, slow wage growth commensurate to expenses and prices of goods, etc.

    If that’s the situation here, I can’t imagine it will be much better in underdeveloped economies like many African nations. Corporations, regardless of their ethos, exist to profit, and if that profit can be made by exploiting workers, they will most surely do it.

    I completely agree with a lot of what you’ve said here (It must be very cold in hell today :)), but your core argument is flawed. Then again, given the horrors that the peoples of Africa endure on a daily basis, I’d rather see them complaining about their bosses than dying in the streets or starving.

  4. But Gavin, it’s not an either/or question. No, the things we often describe as exploitation aren’t anything as bad as the Chinese example, but it also doesn’t mean that political and economic policies that eliminate all MEANINGFUL options aren’t worth acknowledging. Being shot ten times is a lot worse than being shot once, but being shot once can be fatal, so let’s not diminish the need to avoid it, right?

    Can somebody who hates their situation walk away? Technically, sure. But if there are NO OTHER jobs to walk to, no resources with which to start their own business, and significant personal economic crisis (no money for health care, rent due, hungry kids, etc.), is there any real point in intelligent folks wasting time on the fact that there’s a philosophical option available?

  5. Sam, let’s look at this differently from your situation in the US. Just because no-one in the US likes working in a dead-end manufacturing job doesn’t mean that it isn’t a dramatic step up for a person working as a subsistence farmer in Africa. Foreign companies tend to have significantly better labour standards than local firms (maybe not by US standards, but you have to keep that out of your mind). Consider this, a low-paid job at a multinational is higher and better than local firms.

    The investment by that company into plant and machinery, as well as training and management brings new opportunities into the economy. It creates growth.

    The US concern about dead-end jobs is simple. Give them to other countries where they are considered major opportunities. When Ford started over 100 years ago those jobs were highly sought-after. Now they’re just menial. Times change. Expectations change. For you.

    But Africa hasn’t got there yet. Don’t make decisions for us. Allow us to figure stuff out. We’re unlikely to make all the same mistakes you made along the way. South Africa has set up some remarkable laws that prevent exploitation. These are based on the types of fears you express. Our problems are actually local versions of protectionism that keep foreign investment out.

    Trust me on this; vast amounts of unemployment and disillusionment leads to instability, crime and – potentially – war.

  6. I’m an american living in Africa. South Africa. I work with native Africans of all ages every day. The real difference between Africa and the developed West is not “skills” as you say. That is merely a manifestation of the difference. The real difference is the African worldview which manifests itself in the African culture which manifests itself as you described – crime out of control and on the rise in the richest country in Africa. It seems you have bought into the fallacy that economics is the basis for social stability and peace, an old mania from failed materialistic philosophy.

    Africans don’t like to admit it, but Robert Mugabe is the rule, not the exception. In the African mentality it is better to be king of an ash heap than a billionaire who is second in command. While the money keeps coming from the developed West many are succeding at being billionaire kings of ash heaps.

    The fix is not a change of skills. It is also not a change of African culture into Western culture. The change will only come when Africans see a need for change. The West looks at Zimbabwe, the DRC, etc., etc., etc., and sees a human tragedy. Africa looks at that stuff and sees life as normal and wonders why the West is so worked up, but they are glad for the aid money.

    And, btw, hundreds of years of Western cultural imperialism has not changed the African mentality one bit. And it never will. And the West will never understand it.

  7. Steve, you manage to express both a communist and racist ideology in one post. That’s not a nice combo you have there.

    Political systems cause far more damage than cultural ones. Consider Taiwan and China; North Korea and South; even Northern and Southern Ireland. Politics is what creates these astonishing differences in wealth and development.

    And politics finds its expression in economics.

    Steve, call a spade a spade. If you really don’t believe that Africans are capable of anything then why bother? Go home.

  8. I’m not sure where you got the communist remark from. Were you replying my comment? The not-so-veiled reference to communism I made was that it is a failed materialistic philosophy. That is an anti-communist ideology.

    To say there is a difference of cultures is not to be a racist. It seems to me you are looking at African politics and actions from a Western cultural viewpoint and that viewpoint is different from the African cultural viewpoint. That is a fact. Current Western culture would not tolerate in their own cultures many of the atrocities that take place in Africa.

    It also seems to me you are processing this information from a liberal Western world view and mistakenly take the relation of fact to be a value judgment on race and culture. Try taking your personal values out of the equation. This is a common mistake of many from a Western cultural viewpoint. They assume Africa sees the same extent of the human tragedy and wreckage as they do. What if they don’t share your assumption?

    The media here does a good job of keeping track of the latest wars and other atrocities here. Without fail they invariably ask ‘What are the developed countries going to do about it?’ Rarely – very rarely – do they ask ‘Why do we keep doing this to ourselves?’ You hear that kind of question often in the West. I trust you notice the difference. For someone from a different culture to ask Africans the question of why they keep doing this is not racist. Your post above asks that question, we disagree some on the answer.

    I don’t know what you do, where you live, who you spend your time with or what difference you personally make in the lives of the regular people you say you want to help. I don’t know your motives nor if you actually put into practice the theory you espouse. That’s your business. I deal with regular African people every day, trying to make a difference in their lives. We can compare practical involvement if you like, but until you know my motives and put yours into as much practical application, you simply reveal an ill-informed and overly aggressive anti-openness to dialogue when you question mine. Dialogue begins with an willingness to understand, not with uninformed attacks.

  9. Steve, you need to read more of what I write here. Plus, by point of verifiable fact, I don’t share the same alleged cultural standpoint as everyone else here. Check out Sam’s post and you’ll see I’m all on my ownsome.

    Don’t confuse culture with learned helplessness and dependency. When you say Africans demand to know what the West will do to help them rather than helping themselves you are confusing cause with effect. Over the past 50 years Africans have learned that Western nations can be depended on to cough up cash. Blame the Cold War if you like.

    You are demanding of the drug addict that, in the midst of a free coke fest, he’ll come to his senses and go cold turkey on his own? How singular.

    It is much easier for the donor to engage in some tough love than it is for the recipient. Israel still accepts donations / reparations from Germany. Whatever for? And for how long?

    Why on earth should a recipient say no to a free lunch?

    One could almost say that Africans are astonishingly pragmatic. But look at other countries that get a free lunch: Russia, Venezuela, Iran all have oil (which costs them nothing and makes them a fortune) – stable, happy countries are they? Cuba and North Korea get their free lunch in other ways. Has nothing to do with culture, has everything to do with asymmetric benefits. Wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few who deny others the opportunity to work for themselves, and keep them in a state of dependency by doling out the cash.

    It bothers me that physics is the same everywhere but economics is always considered a political opinion.

    Tragedy in Rwanda. Tragedy in Serbia. Oil corruption in Nigeria. Oil corruption in Kazakhstan. Drought and starvation in Ethiopia. Drought and starvation in China. It was only 60 years ago that Europe indulged in a frenzy of genocide that makes anything Africans come up with look somewhat unimaginative.

    No, not cultural. But bad economics is bad economics everywhere and has the same results.

    And my initial comments hold. If all rich nations can come up with is a sing-along and giving more money in charity to feed the beneficiaries’ dependency then they are unaware of their own complicity in this charade. Tra-la-la-la thank you Bob Geldoff.

    Or is the donor just as addicted to the recipient? Does the donor feel that, by giving charity, they can pretend that the innate protectionist antics of their governments to hold Africa in poverty, to keep a cheep supply of minerals, are being counteracted?

    I’ve never hidden who I am or what I do. You can find me at

  10. OK, precision. You are a missionary. I am a development economist. Your purpose in Africa, such as I understand your profession, is to convert individuals to a particular belief system.

    I have no interest, whatsoever, in the beliefs of individuals in the mass. I look at underlying patterns and systems. Where those patterns and systems cause outcomes with a community’s stated aims then I point that out. I engage with key decision-makers.

    Thing is Africa is not a very democratic place. The intended beneficiaries of aid don’t receive it; don’t receive anything. South Africa aside, consider a poor Kenyan farmer. They receive nothing from their state.

    So where does the aid go? It goes to a few key politicians and their acolytes. The corruption endemic to the continent.

    Mugabe in Zimbabwe is an overt microcosm for subtleties elsewhere in Africa. He blames foreigners for all Zimbabwe’s problems and disables anyone who disagrees. That isn’t so different from other parts of the world, just less subtle.

    The political expression of economics (Reaganomics, Clintonomics, communism, socialism) may not be sciences, but things like comparative-advantage, moral-hazard, bounded-rationality, even Smith’s invisible hand are all well-explained phenomenon, no different from other physical theories. That we can only derive approximate equations to define these is an indication of the complexity of individuals – knowing what they know – rather than of the weakness of the theory itself.

    But, I digress. The vast majority of Africans are not dependent on aid. They don’t receive it or experience it in any way, bar one.

    Prof Laurence Schlemmer, a brilliant social scientist, recently conducted research on democracy across Africa. He found that, by and large, Africans are very jaded about politics. They, in his words, vote for the politicians who tell them the best lies.

    They expect their politicians to steal from them. If that isn’t a definition of learned helplessness, I don’t know what is.

    Those politicians are the ones benefiting from foreign donors. Like Mugabe, they’re criminals with no interest in helping their people. A drug addict who experiences downside from that addiction and has the strength to quit will do so.

    But a corrupt politician living the high-life?

    Donors have to recognise that their benevolence doesn’t get anywhere near the people they intend. Donors have to realise that their generosity keeps corrupt leaders in power and takes away their responsibility to deal with their own problems.

    When Medisans sans Frontiers opens a hospital in Malawi and staffs it they are actually indulging in economic dumping. The Malawian government comes to depend on this lovely handout, local doctors emigrate to the UK since they cannot work at home and the country remains dependent on others.

    If Cuba now, after “Sicko”, sent a few thousand doctors to work for free in California how would that go down in the US?

  11. Gavin,
    I would expect economists and political scientists to talk about how important economics and politics are – doesn’t make it so. So, we still disagree on this point.

    Anyway, my primary work here is equipping native African church leaders to better teach and lead their native churches, which has an immediate impact on the well being of their church community and those in contact with it. Beyond that my ‘cultural footprint’ (I just thought of that phrase) is basically non-existant.

    I think prof. Schlemmer’s insights could apply to every culture. I find politics personally distasteful. It seems to me to be just a strategic withdraw. You never get what you want, the trick is to be the one who gives up the least.

    I agree with you about foreign donations just enriching those who hold power. I vaguely recall a study done years ago that showed only about 2% of all UN aid money actually made it to those who needed it.

    Concerning economic dumping, we have the same type of problem here. We focus on training the previously disadvantaged from the rural areas becuase they are the ones with the greatest need and the least access to training. The problem is, once they get training some of them move to the cities where they can get better positions and their rural village is left with no one, thus enriching the ‘haves’ and further weakening the ‘have nots’. That’s human nature and lefties are in error if they think they can control that kind of stuff for the greater good of the society.

    But, like you, I digress. I think another difference between us is that it seems to me that you are working for change from the top down. I think history shows that to be short term gain with little, if any, long term results. I am working for change from the bottom up. A strategy that gets me no recognition, but one that history has shown to have an immediate and lasting impact.

    Well gavin, it has been interesting. If I don’t blog you later, have a nice life.

  12. Indeed. And I’m a chaos theorist. There is no bottom, no top, just infinitely-repeating patterns of ever-reducing simplicity producing infinite complexity.

    To become the change you seek requires that you recognise this, stand still, plant your feet firmly, and act. You are always in the right place.