Last week we argued that the idea of using curvy women as a product to attract tourists is insulting and poorly-packaged patriarchal poverty porn.
But to see this as a one-off bad idea – just an ill-timed rush of blood to the head – is to miss the telltale warning signs around us of how desperation is stripping us of our dignity. For example, it has now become acceptable, nay, official policy, to export young people to work as maids and housekeepers in the Middle East, sometimes in slave-like conditions.
The pragmatism of reducing the pressure of youth joblessness at home is obvious, as is the personal benefit to the young men and women who go from zero to $500 or more per month in one plane ride. But this is evidence of policy failure, not success.
Ugandan maids are not preferred in the Middle East because they have been trained in housekeeping as well as Arabic or Persian language and culture. It is because they are cheaper than the Filipinos, Bangladeshis and Pakistanis before them. The opportunity will continue until the Malawians or someone else cheaper comes along.
These jobs put food on the table, send kids to school and pay for life-saving medicines, but they are also menial, soul-crushing and not scalable. Having worked as a maid for a family in Muscat for three years, one cannot then work for another 30 families in Oman.
Then and now, the only winners in this slavish trade are the local collaborators, the middlemen traders and the plantation owners; there is very little upside for the product itself or the labour it produces.
How does such an unsustainable (and quite frankly shameful) practice become official policy? There must exist joblessness, desperation and someone willing to pay for the labour. But these conditions are not peculiar to us. And not every country with a youth unemployment problem is trying to ship them out as maids in the same way that not every country with curvy women is considering putting them up for display.
The difference lies in the response; either a rush to the bottom of the low-value chain, or climbing up the greasy pole by, for instance, retooling and reskilling workers. It is not clear how well we have done on the latter, or what impact we have seen from a $100 million ‘skilling’ project launched to much fanfare several years ago.
But there is something missing in the way we define what is acceptable or desirable for us. The best way to see it is to be politically incorrect: Imagine an Indonesian ‘investor’ sets up a furniture factory near Kampala. She consumes water, electricity and maybe some raw materials, which is a boost to the economy. But if she pays her workers only Shs10,000 per day and vacuums up the surplus back to Jakarta thanks to a 10-year corporate income tax holiday; would we consider this a good deal at face value?
There is a mathematical economics answer of whether the investor is a net contributor or extractor of value. But there is a political economic question of relations between capital and labour, as well as long-term value: how do you go from merely hosting the factory as a cheap-labour venue to owning, producing and exporting furniture?
In other words, a society must learn to see itself as capable of eventually making the investments others make in its midst, and take deliberate steps to be more than a supplier of cheap labour. What is the point if the factory workers can never afford the furniture they produce? That way, a society that gives a large tract of free land in Lubowa to an investor to build a specialist hospital, then discovers that it has to guarantee the project loan, should be able to see that there is more long-term value in doing the project itself or through local entrepreneurs with proven track records, or at least a hybrid.
This lesson is not new. The decision to prevent Kabaka Mwanga of Buganda from acquiring a sawmill in the late 19th Century and the 1909 order by Sir Hesketh Bell, the Governor of the Uganda Protectorate, to destroy hand gins, which had allowed cotton farmers to add value to their crop in order to get higher prices, were attempts to limit technology transfer and keep the natives as producers of low-value raw materials and consumers of finished products.
The colonial policy was designed to keep the natives poor and strip them of dignity. A society’s ultimate mission, and that of its leaders, should be to economically empower and give dignity to its people. This is the question many post-colonial African leaders have refused to engage with, for to do so is to challenge the neo-colonial edifices of their regimes.
Therefore, it shouldn’t surprise us when sections of the ruling elite see natives who do not have skin in the game, as the skin in the game, be it tourism trophies or slaves for export.
Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and a poor man’s
freedom fighter. [email protected]