Saturday, June 11, 2005

Anarchy and cell phones

The emerging nations of this world are a strange mixture of pockets of modernity and large areas of abject poverty. This sets the stage for some truly amazing, heartbreaking stories. Take this one from the latest issue of The Economist:

Veronique, an office worker, was separated from her daughter by the war. When peace broke out, she booked an aeroplane ticket for her (penniless) girl to rejoin her. But before the daughter could board the plane, she was detained. Her yellow fever vaccination card had been stamped by rebel health authorities, and so was invalid, the officials tut-tutted. Alas, she had no money for a bribe.

But Veronique was able to send her the equivalent of cash by mobile telephone. She bought $20 worth of telephone cards. These give you a code number which you key into your phone and thereby “recharge” it with pre-paid airtime. Veronique called the obstructive officials and gave them her code numbers to recharge their own mobile phones. It took only minutes to send her bribe across the country—faster than a bank transfer, which would in any case have been impossible, since there is no proper banking system.

That's Congo. Private cellphone networks and private airlines work because the landlines do not and the bush has eaten the roads. Public servants serve mostly to make life difficult for the public, in the hope of squeezing some cash out of them. Congo is a police state, but without the benefits. The police have unchecked powers, but provide little security. Your correspondent needed three separate permits to visit the railway station in Kinshasa, where he was stopped and questioned six times in 45 minutes. Yet he found that all the seats, windows and light fixtures had been stolen from the trains.

If only Joseph Conrad were alive today.

The Congo is obviously an extreme, tragic case. But even for more "developed" emerging nations, true prosperity and stability remain elusive, even nearly 200 years after independence, as is the case of Latin America. Just look at Bolivia. I don't want to be a pessimist, but even well-meaning initiatives such as debt relief are not going to make a real difference unless the politics of the these countries can be fixed.