Opinion
Small is beautiful but…
Publish Date: Apr 15, 2014
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By Eng. Kant Ateenyi

German economist turned Briton, Schumacher wrote a religio-economic book, Small is Beautiful in 1973, in which he turned upside down the concept of ‘bigger is better’ in production systems. Since then, at micro level, “small is beautiful” has caught on like a wild fire.

Small firms, countries, populations, etc. are easier to manage than bigger ones; smaller cars, watches, cell phones, PCs etc. are looked at as ‘cool’ machines.

Even ladies with small waist lines and men with small tummies are generally more admired than their bigger counterparts. But these preferences are based on consumption vis-à-vis conservation of natural resources.

In a prejudiced, competitive, resource hungry world, however, nature matches small size with huge numbers for survival.

Large animals eat more but are safer from predators; Small ones find safety only in numbers; huge plants hold smaller ones at ransom through either support or starvation; large brained animals rule everything else; and in space, the mighty stars rule their tiny orbiting planets and moons.

In short, to be eaten by and subservient to bigger creatures are nature’s curses to the small and uncooperative. For Africa, this means our countries either amalgamate as argued in my article of February 19 or if they choose not to, they must cooperate in unison on all matters relating to natural resource exploitation and defence against outsiders.

Since separateness has been leading even to unprincipled competition against each other, the most correct choice would be to amalgamate. In this article, therefore, we look at the less talked about merits of integration.
 

Other people have discussed markets and natural resources integration and costs of doing business – I’ll not bother with those. My focus here is on technical skill building of the black man.

A large population motivates internal competition for opportunities, which in turn leads to hard, innovative and creative effort. I have witnessed this first hand in Nigeria, in Eastern and in Southern Africa regions.

In Botswana (with two million people), where Batswana engineering students get jobs even when still at college, the motivation to excel is much less than in Nigeria (with 174 million people) or Uganda (with 35 million people) and Kenya (with 44 million people).

It is little wonder that passive and surface learning are more pronounced among the former than in latter students.
 

The second – and perhaps most important advantage of a large population is the increase in number of people who are gifted enough to help their societies progress along the development ladder. There is a scientific basis for this.

All societies have both extremely ‘dense’ and extremely ‘sharp’ people among them – in small but roughly similar proportions.

However, it is the ‘sharp’ ones who break new ground in innovation and creativity to be adopted by a middle majority and thus, shift the entire society forward. But to do this, a threshold number is required (critical mass).

A small population is starved of the critical mass necessary to shift it. This is the reason small isolated communities are perpetually tied to their ancient ways of life. It is also one of the reasons China and India are advancing faster than anyone else in relative terms in spite of having the largest populations of isolated people living in medieval ways.

Recognising the necessity to maintain a critical mass of ‘sharpies’, the US, Australia, Canada and South Africa actively seek - even poach - special skilled people from elsewhere.
 

The figure below shows how union can help three originally underdeveloped countries gain the critical mass necessary to pull them out of underdevelopment.

The third merit I address is that a large geographic area provides more challenges, more opportunities for mental exercises and hence, creates experiences leading to inventions and innovations.

Indeed, this is one of many reasons people who first ventured out of Africa tens of millennia ago, eventually pioneered scientific revolutions and built ‘modern’ civilisations. Also, note how farther they moved (China, Japan, Russia, Americas), how more creative they became.

Locally, this was very well put by Charles Okecha in the New Vision of Jan 20 2014 (Sectarianism promotes crime, hinders development). He correctly argued against current practice of localisation in Uganda’s education system. The Banyakitara say, akaikaro kamu tikagiza magezi – literary meaning staying in one place denies you intelligence!
 

Finally, let me touch an area closer to heart. The biggest problem facing engineering students in Africa today is availability and cost of suitable books. Those available are written with a Western mind set – devoid of African examples and flavours of learning, creating unintended pedagogical and post-graduation training and performance issues.

Besides, their costs - which carry a high Western labour cost element, are beyond means of most students. India and China went round these problems by local authorship in their economies. This was possible because of market sizes.

India graduates 1.5 million engineers and technicians annually while China does 1.1 million. Amalgamated Africa would offer similar opportunities and hence would improve learning and consequently, economic and social progress.
 

In the next submission, we ask who will ‘bell the cat’ - to initiate the amalgamation?
 

Ateenyi is a pan Africanist Solar Engineer, a member of American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air-conditioning Engineers and of South African Society of Engineering Education.

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