What do you do when you are having a bad day? Some go out partying, drink their souls away. Some sits at home with a tub of ice cream and watches sappy movies all day. Me? I came home and watched an hour and 15 minutes of MIT lecture that I had downloaded from ITunes University a while ago, where Thomas Friedman gave a lecture about his book, The World is Flat.
I am ashamed to admit that I have yet read the book, though it is currently sitting on my bookshelf and I hope to get to it within the next few days. I feel where I am right now helped me to relate and understand this lecture much more than I would have just 4 months ago as an undergraduate student in St. Louis. Friedman talked about the three period of globalization and that we are now in Globalization 3.0 where the individuals, not countries or companies, are becoming global. I very much relate to that just by my own experiences; places I’ve visited, people I’ve encountered, etc.
Friedman went on talking about the 10 flatteners that cause the world to be flat; those include outsourcing, insourcing, steroids (wireless technology), offshoring, supply chaining, etc. He talked about the phenomenon during the Dot.com era, when Lucent, Nortel and other companies that pumped in over $1 trillion investment in fiber optic cable, which are “the gift that keeps on giving”. I especially love when he said his parents always told him, “finish your dinner, kids in China and India are starving” but now he tells his kids, “finish your homework, kids in China and India are starving for your jobs.”
All the while, I found how ironic and how little any of this “flatness” related to my life here in Cameroon, West Africa. Just before I got home, I was visiting another GIC in the neighboring village. Visiting GICs essentially consists of going into the fields and make sure the farmers who are requesting credits from the bank have a legit crop-earning farm. Going on these trips always feels like some sort of extreme-sport. Today, I didn’t know we were going on a visit, so I wore a skirt, totally ill prepared. I side-saddled on a moto as we were going up and down these ridiculous bumpy and narrow hills where grass and other plants were hitting my legs. We got to this house that sits on top of the hill after winding through many narrow paths. The house is made of brick and mud and hasn’t been cemented. There were corn on the ground and kids around the age of 3 or 4 running around, along with the chickens. There were faint smells of wood burning coming from the kitchen. I was amazed both at the simplicity of this house/family and the breathtaking view just behind the house.
Coming back from that, listening to a lecture about globalization and fiber optic cables, I wondered, why didn’t those cables made its way here? The question of how Africa plays into this picture of the flatten world was on my mind during the entire lecture. Thankfully, during the Q&A session, one of the MIT students asked just that. While there is no crazy information sharing, wireless technology, etc, globalization does exist here in Africa. All the motos that I ride everyday are Chinese. I’ve yet seen a non-Chinese moto. The fridge I bought last week is Chinese. All the cars that exist here in Cameroon are imported. In fact, most things here are imported because they don’t manufacture anything here. Globalization is happening even in Africa, just not to the extent that it is occurring elsewhere in the world. Friedman talked about an interesting point regarding anti-poverty. He said that governance is the key to any anti-poverty programs, which makes me think about how difficult my job is as a development worker in a country that is so corrupted. I had a discussion with someone once about why Cameroon doesn’t manufacture its own things. The answer given was that the government gives investors so much trouble about opening up factories that it’s just easier to import. It’s hard to carry out bottom-up approach work when the problem is top-down.
The world may be flat in most part of this planet, but it is not quite as flat here in Cameroon and I imagine other African nations as well. The rapid flatness of the world elsewhere, I think, is brining greater disparity between developing nations like Cameroon and the developed world. Take volunteers for example, I grew up in the world of technology. I barely remember life before the Internet, before having all the information in the world at my fingertip. And I have no idea what it’s like to never meet a person of different ethnic or national origin than me. I come here and I am supposed to transfer these so called skills of mine to people here. But my skills really consist of going to Google and look things up when I don’t know something. My SKILLS are the ability to look things up on Google, on Wikipedia, and the World Wide Web. How in the world am I supposed to transfer that when people barely have electricity, much less a computer or even Internet? I would imagine it’s slightly easier for volunteers to relate even just 10 years ago, where Internet and information sharing was not an integral part of life.
For example, I want to start a library club, but I honestly can’t tell you exactly how a library runs before the age of computer. I think it involves cards and stamps? I just remember looking things up on the library intra-web when I need a book or article. The disconnect is much greater and more rapid as the developed world gets more flattened and the rest not. I am pretty sure the family I visited today is still in Globalization 1.0, where the country is trading with other countries, but they as a family is not even slightly affected by the flat world out there.