It is amazing how little support the advanced sectors of our economy receives from public sources. It seems like this disinterest is caused by multiple factors. One, it is not in line with the priorities of the labour movement. The labour unions prefer a focus on job creation for low skilled workers. However, research has also shown that every professional worker in the knowledge sector creates a multiplier of jobs for lower skilled workers. But like an official told me last week: “the problem is that we don’t want the rich people with skills to get richer. We want the poor people without skills to benefit”. Before you laugh, many development agencies and donors are nurturing the same ideas. Can someone please explain to me why we choose to cap the income of the ‘rich’ and ‘skilled’? The fact that there is such a high premium on skilled workers are symptoms of a much bigger problem. Can someone also again explain how we are going to get people out of poverty by focusing exclusively on the people in the trap?
Let me get back to my main argument…
The second reason why the advanced sectors are overlooked is because they are so difficult to understand. Knowledge is often not a product in itself, but an input into other production sectors. Therefore it is difficult to describe, capture, measure and report on. But the truth is that more and more of our economic sectors are becoming knowledge intensive. Even something is ‘simple’ as farming (which was done mainly be people with low academic qualifications less than 50 years ago) is now increasingly knowledge intensive. This knowledge intensity is partly due to technology, but also because of the natural specialisation that occurs within industries. A challenge is that we do not do enough in developing countries to embrace and measure the knowledge economy (which is not about clever academics).
The third reason the advanced sectors receive so little public support is because the business sector itself struggles to justify or articulate their needs. The problem with specialisation is that everyone is indeed on their own little island. Thus fragmentation is part of the character of the system.
Perhaps final reason is because development practitioners and public officials think that the clever dudes in the advanced sector can help themselves. Well, have you ever noticed what happens with collective intelligence without a facilitator – it goes down. Putting a bunch of experts in the room will not necessarily result in clever expert ideas coming out. Furthermore, the business owners in the advanced sectors are fierce rivals, all fighting or lobbying for their ideas to become standard. Perhaps I should add that even highly educated and specifically highly experienced people are also blinded sometimes, or are sucked down a dependency path. A final point is that the advanced sectors in other countries are getting really advanced support from the public sector, so leaving our advanced sectors to help themselves is not a wise idea in the longer term. If you want to see what income inequality looks like, then leave the game for just a few to play, with high risks and even higher rewards to the few people that can overcome the technical, market and government obstacles placed in their way (if it sounds familiar it is because it is already happening. Come to South Africa if you want to see this).
Might I add that many donors also prefer to work with the poor and the helpless for political reasons, despite the fact that so many research reports have shown that you cannot solve the problem by working on the symptoms.
So perhaps we need to take a step back and look at the levers created by the advanced sectors in developing countries. We need a more systemic perspective of what is driving change and prosperity in these countries. I am convinced that we should shift our attention from trying to get one more farmer into a system with no margins, and shift our attention to the industries in the countries we work in. We should use our diagnostic tools to overcome market failures, low economies of scale, and help articulate demand that can create new industries (or new pressures to improve performance).