If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it (but make sure it really isn’t broken)

Today is the final day of the study tour. It’s hard to believe we’ve done so much in just two weeks. It seems like just yesterday we were having St. Louis beers at News Café, and yet it seems so long ago at the same time. We have done a lot, and our long drives in Namibia have lent themselves to much reflection and conversation about what we’ve seen.

As I reflect back on the trip and what we learned about the business climate in Botswana and Namibia, I have arrived at a hypothesis for why entrepreneurship and self-motivation seemed to be more apparent in the latter: contentment. In Botswana we often heard the word “entitled” used to describe the local population, but that was clearly judgmental and, I believe, inaccurate. I would suggest that “contentment” is a better explanation for the phenomenon of low entrepreneurship and self-motivation.

In Botswana, with a preserved pastoral culture where success is measured in land and cattle, where healthcare and education are free, the very rich live in secluded neighborhoods, and where one can live comfortably for days without spending a single pula, the population seems quite content. Basic (and even more-than-basic) needs are attended too, and there is no clear need to create a new business, work harder than the next person, or do any more than the basic requirements for a job.

Namibia’s colonial history is not only evident in the architecture but in the European-style street retail.

In contrast, in Namibia, a century of colonial rule has made the wealth and power disparity very obvious, so that one can drive around Windhoek and in the space of five minutes see mansions and huts. Furthermore, the colonial history brought western notions of success and seems to have laid the groundwork for a much more competitive market in the country. There were many safari camps, a few luxury hotels, and many restaurants to choose from in Namibia. In Botswana there seemed to be one of everything (except malls, which were, in fact, quite similar to one another.

Contrary to the famous marketing slogan, diamonds may not be forever. While they are are a major source of value for both Namibia and Botswana today, the question looms of what will happen when the mines run out or diamond prices fall.

In light of this, I would suggest that when people are content with their way of life, the incentive is simply to maintain it. Notions of “upward mobility” appear to be a more Western notion and only make sense if there is something “worse” about the status quo than some “improved” status. In Botswana (and, to some extent, in the townships of Katatura in Namibia), there seems to be that contentment (again, used in a very neutral way). The question then becomes, is this actually problematic? If people are content with their lives, why expose them to things that will make them no longer content? Perhaps the question comes down to choice and sustainability – would Namibians and Batswana choose their way of life as opposed to others if given the choice? And will these lifestyles be sustainable if the state’s large mineral resources are drained?

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