Sunday, August 26, 2007

The Indians are bad, but the Chinese are worse.

The NY times is doing a series on Chinese investment in Africa. I think that it’s an interesting read.

"We are back where we started. Sending raw materials out, bringing cheap manufactured goods in. This isn't progress. It is colonialism."

- WILFRED COLLINS WONANI, head of the Chamber of Commerce in Kabwe, Zambia, where a Chinese company once manufactured finished cloth but now exports only raw cotton.

This topic has been gaining real estate in my sphere of reality over the last few years. First, I noticed a bit of if when I was in Ghana where a few Chinese were first heading into the country. Then when I was working in corporate social responsibility, the issue of Chinese companies in Africa was a hot topic. The concern was related to the emergence of Chinese companies in previously western dominated markets. Because Chinese companies do not have the social pressure to operate according social and environmental standards that were being demanded of western based companies, (think Talisman in Sudan – shareholders demanded their withdrawl and in comes a SINOPEC, a Chinese company. Is the situation better off?) there was a fear that the emergence of China was going to create a bit of a race to the bottom effectve where companies, in order to be competitive with the chinese, were going to not have a choice but to forgoe any investment in social and environmental iniviatives.

Here in Zambia, as you'll read in the NYT seires, the Chinese invasion has happened. They’re investing in mines, they’re giving development loans to the Zambian government ( just released $39M US for road construction), they’re opening up shops and importing goods. China has an insatiable appetite for natural resources, they’re looking for new trading partners and Africa is their answer.

I am of course perceived to be Chinese (from China) who is here to do business. This means that I’m constantly fighting the stereotype that comes with this. The reputation of the Chinese is sometimes good, and sometimes not so good. On one hand, I’ve never met so many people who are interested in learning Chinese, and wanting to go to China. On the other hand however, the Chinese have a poor reputation because of the poor working conditions in the mines and factories, (they really can’t seem to shake this can they?), for low wages, for not trying to understand the culture and the language and all of this culminates to a reputation that they have little respect for Zambians. Last year, during the election, the opposition party actually campaigned with quite an anti-chinese sentiment that promised that if they were elected into power, all of the Chinese would be kicked out of the country. While there are also a lot businesses in Zambia owned by Indians, and the Chinese are more recent additions and last week I read the quote that is the title of this post – ‘The Indians are Bad, but the Chinese are worse; – in an article on this exact topic published in the national newspaper, THE POST.

And so, with every stranger that I meet, I often find myself in a bit of an identity crisis because I only know Canada but I am often greeted and treated with an entire other set of baggage that I don’t and can’t relate to. And when this happens, I feel so much appreciation for the multi-culturalism of Canada.

Finally, the role of China in Africa touches upon the bigger question of foreign direct investment and its impact on broad based poverty reduction. My time in Zambia has blown open a door to the role of markets and the impacts and limitations that an underdeveloped/dysfunctional/inefficient economic system has on the poor. Through all of this, I have come see that trickle down benefits do occur, and have also come to see that perhaps FDI plays a bigger role in development than I had originally perceived. This is not to say that I think that it always happens and necessarily impacts the poor in the most beneficial way, but merely that I think that it does happen and that it does produce benefits like job creation, wealth generation opportunities, technology transfer, tax payments that can lead to investment in infrastructure (of course many of these are limited by the effectiveness of government policies) and these are all critical factors in the overall economic environment in which poor communities are trying to develop.

That’s about as far as my thoughts take me. Like the rest of development, the question of China in Africa sparks a greater flurry of questions; Questions like how can foreign direct investment be better structured to benefit the poor? How much control does the government actually have over foreign companies to ensure that that benefits do come through? What is the responsibility of a foreign company entering into a developing country? What mind set shifts need to happen with large multinational companies when they enter into developing countries and how can we get them to understand that they have to learn a new way of doing business? Is FDI really just another form of colonialism? Or is the presence of foreign companies actually even avoidable given the global trends of globalisation? Apart from investment how does Chinese development loans impact development activities? Will the fact that Zambia now has an alternative source of funding outside the traditional western based avenues of the IMF and World Bank, improve their ability to lead their own development?

Questions. So many questions, but that is development. That’s part of why I enjoy it.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

home. sweet. home.


(sorry, some of the photos aren't showing up properly right now because the internet here has been so wonderful. and by wonderful i mean as wonderful as a stick in the eye. i wanted to post anyway, so just check back for some photo updates.

Lusaka, Zambia

end of day football game on my walk home

Well, I’ll have to admit it is hard to believe that it’s been over 7 months since I left Vancouver, 6 months since I left Toronto and 5 months since i arrived in zambia.

In 5 months many things can change, and many things can stay the same. In the most basic terms, seasons back home have moved from the punishing freeze of winter into the sweltering heat of summer. In world affairs, Tony Blair has left office, Harper continues to be well, uninspiring, China is continuing to take over the world and Zimbabwe slides further into economic crisis. And perhaps most importantly to me, my dad has retired, my little niece Jada has learned to walk, and my little nephew Dante got his first haircut and has proceeded to grow what looks like his first mullet.

I have now officially lived in Lusaka for about 5 months and that is truly hard to believe. I find that that when you settle into a new city and new culture, the changes that mark the passing of time are subtle and tend to creep upon you without you knowing. Neighbourhoods that once blended into each other and are now distinct in style and character; strangers who looked at me curiously and cautiously when I first moved into the neighbourhood have now emerged as people like Catherine the young girl who sells groundnuts along the road and Royd, the elderly shopkeeper around the corner who once served in Zambia’s foreign service; roads, which once seemed a jumbled mess leading no where and everywhere at the same time have somehow found order and direction. And maybe the biggest change over 5 months is that this city, once filled with newness and attractions that tugged at my senses and jockeyed for my attention, has somehow slipped into something more comfortable, more familiar and something that resembles a home.

And it is home that I have realised I have not yet even talked much about– where I live, who I live with and how I live. While my writing on development may be a stretch for understanding by those of you who are not involved in development everyone can relate to home so I though I would take this post to give you the royal tour.

When I first took this placement with EWB, I had the expectation that I would be posted in a rural community far out in the western part of Zambia. The thing with EWB placements is that they range from field positions through to head office positions, depending on the needs of the partner organisation. When I arrived, I learned that I would be based out of the head office in Lusaka – the capital city of Zambia.

Lusaka is a city of just over 1 million people and is pretty much the centre of this oddly shaped country – if you want to go from east to west, from north to south, you have to pass through Lusaka. It is a mixture of people from all around the country, all speaking variations of the 72 tribal languages. It is a city of contrasts; western fast food restaurant chains and supermarkets coming from South Africa juxtaposed against the traditional bustling African open markets; people decked out in Jay Z street gear sharing the road with women in African chitenge suits; obvious symbols of wealth as evidenced by shiny BMWs and opulent mansions on treelined streets with obvious symbols of urban poverty as seen by street children and high density compounds.

Because of these contrasts I found Lusaka difficult to classify and so maybe that is why it took me a while to understand it. It is a city that I didn’t fall in love with instantly, but have learned to love over time. It took me a little while to become comfortable with Lusaka because in my reference point was still Ghana – with its boisterous, emotional West African culture that had drawn me right from the beginning. While I had understood, from an intellectual level that Lusaka was not Ghana, I had not yet emotionally grasped it. Compared to Ghana, the culture is quieter here, there is less street activity, things are more orderly, and people are more reserved. Things are not necessarily better, they’re just different and over 5 months, I have come to enjoy the very differences that had once created a sense of longing.

Where I stay now is actually the second home that I have had since arriving. For the first few months, I stayed in Emmasdale with my roommate Yvonne. We shared a very modest space; in one room was the kitchen and Yvonne’s bed. I stayed in the store room and we had a self contained bathroom. But Emmasdale was a bit too closed off and cold for my liking and the daily commute to work was taking its toll on me and so in June, I searched around for somewhere where I could feel a real sense of community and energy, where things were more ‘African’ and where it would be possible for me to walk to the office.

Yvonne and I, at my old place in Emmasdale

And so, after asking around at the office, it was suggested that I should consider Kabwata. I asked Yvonne one evening what she knew of Kabwata.

‘Kabwata? Well, sure, Kabwata is the Dallas of Lusaka’

Woah Woah Waoh. The Dallas of Lusaka!? When I think of Dallas, I think of this.

“You know, Kabawata is the part of the city that never sleeps. There is always music playing, people in the streets. If you’re looking for energy, you will definitely find it there.

I was instantly sold.


Fruitstalls on main drag in Kabwata

The day I moved in, I was kind of stressed out. I took a walk along the main stretch of Kabwata and just past the market and I discovered the very things I had been looking for; busy streets, a gauntlet of ladies selling their fruits and vegetables, and people mingling about and friends chatting away and music playing from shops.

One day, my friend Chad and I were walking through the market and was able to capture an example of how I’ve come to love this place and an example of the energy and randomness that I drawn to. I was going to use the footage and create a video, but Chad has done a wonderful job capturing the feeling and sentiments of Lusaka and Kabwata, there really isn’t any point.

My home.

My home here in Lusaka is different than anything you’ll find in Canada. It is simple, and its simplicity is the very thing that I value. I have come to realise that my life at home was filled with so many things that I didn’t need and in many ways, I love my time here because it has re-centre myself on the true material goods that I require to lead a comfortable life.

EWB volunteers are provided a daily living stipend that amounts to $15/day. While this is definitely on the lower end of expatriate remuneration, it is about on the same level as a field worker which means that we can live like one of our colleagues.

Road infront of my house

walkway to house

I rent out one room in a house owned by Auntie Phiri. I pay about $80/month. In my house is Auntie Phiri, her 16 year old daughter Cairo, her son Timothy who plays football for one of the teams here. There is also another tenant who rents out the other room and his name is PRINCE. ( that’s right, PRINCE. I just love that my housemate is PRINCE).

Cairo, ironing in the kitchen

Aunti Phiri, Cairo and Timothy have sectioned off some space in the kitchen and they stay there, while I have my own room.

Other units in the compound

Our home is part of a compound with three units in total and many people coming in and out. As a compound there are things that we all share like water, toilet and shower.


Water access in Zambia varies. Upper middle class homes will likely have own access. New neighbourhoods or high density compounds often don’t have direct water hook up and have to fetch water from public water source. In this case, most people will fill 200L barrels of water and bring them home. This, is a common sight I see on my Sunday morning runs, and let me tell you, is not an easy task to do!

Arnold, who weighs about 60 lbs, pushing 200L of water

My home is somewhere in the middle. We have water source that is shared by all of the people in our compound. It looks like this.

And is multifunctional, serving as our kitchen sink, our bathroom sink, our laundry sink and anything else you can think of.

Doing dishes in evening by candlelight ( how romantic)

We also share a toilet ( come on, I know you’re all wondering!). Ours is luxurious – porcelain, flushing.

And shower. Cold showers during the hot season are wonderful, but heated bucket baths most recently as the temperature has been too cold. Amazingly, with probably 15 people sharing one shower, I’ve only had to wait for the shower twice!

My room is about 3.5 m x 3.5m and is perfectly simple.

cooking dinner


bed/work area

And that’s about it. To me, it is exactly what I need and allows me to live with a family while having my own personal space. I don’t eat with Auntie Phiri and Cairo because they don’t eat until 2130 hours and I’m usually in bed by 22 hours. But every day, when I get home, it is a bit of ritual where I chat with Cairo and see how her school is going as she prepares tea and popcorn as a snack for her and her mom. Auntie Phiri then comes home and we also catch up and then I head to my room and cook dinner and do some reading and head to bed and chat with them as they watch cheesy Spanish soap operas.

And it is this ritual, this familiarity that I’ve come to enjoy and that has come to be part of my life here. It is this relationships with a family, and a neighbourhood, and culture that makes things more real, helps me to frame development in another light and makes the distance from friends and family ok.