Land not the economy

PROGRESSIVE nations are beginning to employ strategic human resources (HR) concepts to address perculiar national challenges.

OPINION BY BRETT CHULU

A case in point is the government of Singapore who happen to be a member of a highly respected strategic HR institute. Singapore has a very low fertility rate of 1.1, which is below the population replacement rate of 2.1. Human capital, being Singapore’s chief national resource,  a  fertility rate persistently below the replacement rate threatens to reverse Singapore’s hard-won economic gains.

Under these circumstances immigration would have to be a key national policy priority. Accelerated immigration would bring with it the potential challenges of a society fragmented around national origins, language and religious persuasion — possibly leading to the development of an enclave culture fanning social tensions. The question before the leaders of this nation-state was how to address the twin challenges of future human capital shortages and a potentially unstable social structure. Multiculturalism was the answer. To this end, Singapore crafted a deliberate national housing policy requiring neighbourhoods and housing blocks to reflect multiculturalism.

Land not the economy
What Singapore lacks, Zimbabwe has in abundance — minerals and land. That which Singapore has, a strong human capital base, Zimbabwe has too. Sadly, the irony is, Singapore with a population size of 5,2 million produces a Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of about US$250 billion. That’s an astonishing per capita GDP of close to US$50 000. Contrast that with Zimbabwe — 12 million or so people produce about US$9 billion of GDP (honestly speaking, no one seems to have an authoritative knowledge of the real figure) — and this with abundant mineral resources and land.

Singapore’s case clearly demonstrates that land is not always the economy. Abundant natural resources do not always translate to economic prosperity. In fact, history has shown that nations with scarcity of natural resources have been spurred to come up with innovations that have created globally competitive industries.

Put differently, many nations have turned natural resource scarcity into a competitive advantage. Britain has some of the world’s top quality clays for ceramic tiles. However, Italy not Britain is the world’s top producer of top quality ceramic tiles though Italy does not have high quality clays. Physical space constraints in Japan have led the Japanese to develop miniature technologies for everyday home life. That expertise inspired many Japanese innovations such as Just in Time (JIT) manufacturing systems.

In contrast, other nations where physical space constraint is not an issue were using Just In Case systems, leading to relatively higher manufacturing costs. Another famous Japanese innovation was the compact car which not only economised on space but was also fuel-efficient and more affordable than the traditional big and fuel-guzzling Western car models. A national physical resource challenge supercharged Japan’s economic progress and set its long-time world dominance in electronic and vehicle exports.

Ideas are the economy
We need a decided paradigm shift in Zimbabwe that interrogates the economic agenda.
Let us imagine a Zimbabwe without diamonds, gold, platinum and other mineral deposits. Compound that picture and imagine a Zimbabwe without its rich wildlife. Let’s further complicate that scenario and imagine a Zimbabwe with rich agricultural land but with a dry climate.  We now have a future imaginary Zimbabwe devoid of its current economic base.

Under these imagined circumstances land ceases to be the economy.  What would we do as a nation when land ceases to be the economy? What sort of economic agenda would we craft? What sort of a future Medium Term Policy would Economic Planning minister Tapiwa Mashakada craft? What sort of a national budget would a future Minister of Finance come up with? What kind of content would go into a 30-year economic vision such as the current US$100 billion economy by 2040?  Put differently, how will the pillars of the current Vision 2040 of a US$100 billion economy change if the imaginary future circumstances we have highlighted became a reality today?

The answer to these questions is that the thrust, content and assumptions going into our key economic policies will be radically different.

This kind of approach rescues us from the curse of resource-abundance in which natural resource advantage fails to translate into economic prosperity and improved living standards.

Imagine the possibilities, for instance, what sort of technologies would we develop to take advantage of rich agricultural resources constrained by an imaginary dry climate? One foresees benchmark breakthroughs in science and technology as a result of our heightened need to guarantee food security which will result in unique expertise. We could develop a cluster of related industries leveraging on this core expertise. These related industries could develop into global exporters. Now extend this kind of thinking to addressing possible day-to-day constraints people would face as a result of our imagined national constraints.

In general, this kind of thinking is lacking in our nation.

Land and ideas the economy
Having adopted an ideas-is-the-economy approach, the next step is to then leverage on the abundance of our natural resources. We then need to imagine future global social, political and environmental scenarios that will impact on the world economy. For these scenarios, we then seek how to position our nation’s natural resources to develop solutions to future global challenges.

If we fail to see the future ahead of time, other nations will develop the knowledge and expertise necessary to spur future economic growth. As has been the case in the past, these nations will come to us for our natural resources.

  • Chulu is a strategic HR consultant who has consulted to listed and unlisted companies. brettchulu@consultant.com

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