Thursday, July 8, 2010

On Inequality.

I asked a question a couple of days ago, and got some thoughtful answers in the comments section. Just wanted to share some highlights: It is awesome. And then this:


accompanied by this:

"Will more recent data show an increase in inequality, since many of the mouth-watering shangingis you saw are probably newer than 2007 models? I daren’t hazard a guess. But an interesting question suggested itself to me, and I want to ask it of you as a sociologist: does a higher gini coefficient – more inequality – lead to more aspiration and motivation for self-improvement among the people, or does it engender more resentment and desperation?"

Reminds me of a discussion we had in my Soc. days when Prof. Washington (I think it was him) was telling us about a study which showed that in the U.S. Airforce, where promotions come faster and 'easier' than in the Army, the levels of entitlement and discontent amongst airmen was higher than amongst soldiers who were used to the idea of a long hard slog to the top. To tease that out a little, the answer to the inequality/social consequences question has to examine people's expectations and their experience and perceptions of social mobility and social justice.

I don't know if there is a universal answer to that question- societies differ considerably in their tolerance of inequality. America is exceptional in its ludicrous insistence on "equality" but under Pax Americana many of us have acquired an aversion to inequality. Not a bad ideal, just a bit out of touch with human reality and sadly insensate to human history.

I will venture this opinion on the responses to inequality in Bongoland: inequality is breeding some motivation for self-improvement amongst the minority who have reason to believe they can be socially mobile, and resentment and desperation in the majority that knows that upward mobility is unlikely in their case.

Those of us who have a solid education- one that imparts skills rather than rote learning- are in the minority but entirely cognizant that this is an asset in a hungry and protectionist job market. Some of us are choosing crooked ways to get where we need to go (yes ten-percenter, I am talking about you) and some of us are happily working away to become part of that beautiful and important modern institution: the middle class. And it really is a worker's market- is there any industry or profession in this country that couldn't do with more competent people? This middle class has the potential to build up all the other institutions we so crave in order to achieve a western-model modernity: professional associations, service industries, small- and medium-sized businesses, intellectuals, professionals, innovators, etc. We believe in social mobility irrespective of gender, race or religion because education and employability are more important- and useful. And we abhor inequality, as long as this belief does not interfere with our cushy lives.

Then there are the barbarians at the gate. Dubious literacy and numeracy thanks to a shockingly inept public education system and a brutally unconcerned government. Exploited mercilessly by petty rural officials, ignored by the primate city and her big-time officials. Young men flooding to Dar looking for any job to put food on the table, send money home and maybe earn them enough to afford a family. Pregnant schoolgirls who get expelled. Grandmothers raising their offspring's children who died of AIDS. No roads. No electricity. No market for surplus goods. Splashed with mud by passing Shangingis. These guys, Aidan, are the ones throwing rocks at the ministerial and presidential motorcades. They are righteously pissed off. They are thinking that maybe this democracy thing is a load of bullshit, and that "development" is a scam run by twice-a-year Mzungu visitors and their local enablers. Missionaries are exempted.

Nyerere gave us a gift and a curse when he told us that every Tanzanian was worth as much as any other Tanzanian. He built a nation on this dreamer's fallacy, and inculcated us with a slightly useless human rights perspective of life with socialist leanings. So we are have the sense of entitlement of a U.S. Airman. And the slow-ass chance of promotion of a U.S. soldier.

We are quite schizophrenic, as my former boss used to tell me. We kill albinos to get rich. We attend charismatic churches preaching the gospel of affluence. The UtuNet is incapable of absorbing all the fallout. Corruption stories hit media peaks like no other kind of story as we hunger to see the bastards bleed. We are young, and angry, and ready to punch fisadis in the face. And times are a-changing fast in this emerging market, leaving all the unfortunate laggards behind. Left-behind is a sensation that would induce anyone to bitterness.

"does a higher gini coefficient – more inequality – lead to more aspiration and motivation for self-improvement among the people, or does it engender more resentment and desperation?"

In Tanzania? Yes, and Yes.


  1. The question of whether Shangingis lead to resentment is a good one.

    I don't really know the answer, but at least personally I haven't really noticed it yet in Bongo.

    A couple of reasons why there might not yet be much class based resentment in our beloved TZ:

    (1) The wealth is not perceived as being the exclusive province of just one particular (ethnic) group or region. i.e only WaHaya or waChagga or whatever ...

    (2) Almost every "middle class" Tanzanian has a few dozen "not-middle-class" relations and conversely I would guess every extended family (village?) has some people in the "Shangingi class". I am kind of guessing on that last part.

    So essentially the relatively better off are not seen as being a completely separate caste from the majority. (unlike say the nobility in the French revolution or the Russian revolution)

    I don't know how this will change in the future, but an obvious key to maintaining Pax Tanzaniana will be to channel the benefits of economic growth into some tangible improvements for the vast majority, e.g. in availability of education, healthcare etc.

    A challenging prospect but not all together impossible.

    Assuming there is sustained economic growth.

  2. Hey Dr. Bob. Let's talk about Home. Pax Tanzaniana is, indeed, a lovely term.

    1) That is a result of Nyerere's canny suppression of the Haya and Chagga cooperative societies and breaking of ethnic economic organization. Don't take my word for it, just find an elder to tell you the unprinted stories. The French? The Russians? You know what I think about comparative histories, especially those involving Europe.

    2) Mh-hm. And who doesn't have relations across the economic board? Perhaps just folks who live in such nuclear arrangements that it is easy to ignore the larger complex picture. Still, the utu-net hardly precludes the emergence of an elitist and consumerist middle class.

    Sustained economic growth and channelling benefits to improvements in livelihood for the vast majority are worthy goals. But there can be no talk of economic justice without an examination of power, and how it chooses to behave. That's the real story.



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