There are two attitudinal trends that emerge when you work with government officials responsible for economic development in many Southern African countries. The first, is that foreigners with skills pose a threat to locals, and that they should be kept out of the country to protect local jobs. Despite popular belief, this is not a position that is unique to Africa (ask anybody who tried to get a VISA to Germany recently!). The second, is that rural people should be kept (by force or incentives) in the rural areas, and that jobs should go to rural areas to make sure that people do not migrate to cities.
Both these trends are disturbing as it limits our options to makes economic development reach its objectives. It is so important to attract people with skills to a developing country, as research shows that the best skills and knowledge transfer in developing countries does not take place through knowledge transfers from universities, it takes place through knowledge transfer from suppliers, customers and competitors (UNCTAD LDC report 2007 and others). When you attract foreigners with skills to your country, you basically save education costs as these individuals were trained and gained their experience at the expense of another country. Unfortunately, xenophobic propaganda that is often fuelled by insecure local politicians have succeeded in making it very difficult for foreigners with skills to feel comfortable or safe in many communities in our region. Governments also use the ‘scarce’ definition to basically make it extremely difficult to attract people with scarce skills. For instance, a UNIDO study in the SADC region found that most small enterprises lacked accounting and basic management skills that undermines their chances of surviving or thriving. Yet, accounting and business management skills is not recognised as a scarce skill in most of the SADC member states. Fortunately that may be changing soon in South Africa, but it may still take time for the government to figure out the new relaxed rules and procedures to make it easier to attract foreigners with ‘scarce’ skills.
The 2nd trend is that government officials want to fight the flight of people from the rural areas to the urban areas. The World Bank 2009 World Development report is still one of the best publications to describe the new rules of human mobility. It is a fact, people (for now) are moving to cities and towns. And it is also a fact that people are more emotional or sensitive about this topic than many other development topics. Yet, statistics show that people are engaging less in subsistence agriculture in many Southern African countries, and farm labourers that used to exchange manual labour for food and tenure on commercial farms are increasingly left without jobs due to changes in labour laws and value systems in many countries.
In a recent interview with a father that moved his whole family from a rural area in South Africa to a squatter camp (informal settlement) explained that it was better to unemployed in the city than employed in the country side. His kids are going to a school that offered much better education than the rural school, so even if government succeeded in creating jobs in the rural country side, people like his family may still choose to take their chances in the city. Even though many people may choose to move to the city, there are still large numbers of people that are not as mobile, due to personal health, cultural or other reasons. With every skilled or capable person that decides to leave a rural area, the remaining people are increasingly marginalised as the options to create jobs for the remaining people dwindles as the average skill level in the region declines. For instance, if a person with some farm management skills leaves and area, the chances of creating jobs through effective farm management competencies goes down. Therefore, one of the most important government interventions into the rural areas should be education, as this at least makes it easier for future generations to exercise their choice of whether they want to stay or move. In any case, people with better qualifications (and experience) are more likely to succeed in an enterprise (or farm) in a rural area.
I moderated a conference in the region recently, where several participants felt that people from the rural areas SHOULD NOT BE ALLOWED into cities! I was quite shocked by how many others publicly endorsed this opinion. Basically this argument will enforce a new divide, those with shops, banks cinemas, traffic congestions, better jobs and good schools, and those without. I cannot even imagine going back with my family to the small town where I grew up.
So as development practitioners we have to embrace the new challenges of mobile human beings. We have to make our counterparts aware of ‘scarce’ skills that are missing in the system, and the benefits of attracting people into local systems that have gained expertise and qualifications elsewhere as a means to build local competencies. Furthermore, we should not fall in the trap of believing that people from rural areas and other countries are here to steal jobs.
Also do not fall in the trap of stereotyping all people living in informal settlements as uneducated. The father I mentioned earlier is a qualified diesel mechanic that used to work in a rural tractor dealership. Understand that job creation in rural areas are difficult because of low volumes and the fact that people with skills and experience are (for now) moving to the urban areas. But we cannot prevent people from moving as this is an important choice for families to make. Rather, our spatial planning and city development strategies must deal with the fact that in the medium term more people are coming to cities.At the same time, the urban dynamics are changing. Cities are becoming the lifeblood of our African economies, and people live and work differently in these spaces. This also has an impact on our city management and our economic development opportunities. I sometimes wonder whether the poor public transport systems in South African cities are designed on the assumption that all the commuters will soon go away to where they came from.
The age of human mobility is upon us, and this is not only a luxury of only the wealthy. The poor, the desperate and the under valued people are also mobile, and when they move, they change the economic potentials of the spaces they leave behind as well as their destinations.