Saturday 31 May 2008

Things are getting better...

I accept that compared with many Angolans who survive from day to day on incomprehensibly small incomes, I enjoy a high standard of living. There are not many expatriates, however, that can claim to have lived in the same shanty towns and Bairros that the impoverished endure. I did for two years, occasionally enjoying town water and electricity, but never simultaneously.

Angola has its problems. Anyone who visits the place will immediately be struck by the squalor and hardship that is the lot of the masses.

Go to any African country, and more than a few other countries, Asian, European or Latin American and the same is evident.

What encourages me about Angola, however, is that things are definitely improving. And having politely declined further assistance from the World Bank and the IMF, the Angolans are doing it by themselves. The Economist predicts growth of over 21 per cent GDP this year, the highest of any country in the world.

Angola endured decades of interference in its internal affairs and suffered years of destructive civil war as a result.

In his excellent book, The State of Africa, Martin Meredith argues convincingly that one of the major impediments to development in Africa is weak or non-existent land title laws.

In developed countries, we may suffer outrageous taxation but at least we can demonstrate legal ownership of what we have. In Africa, for so long, it has been impossible to register the benefits accrued through years of hard labour.

That, in Angola at least, is about to change.

There was a system to register title to property. One inherited from the Portuguese, therefore bureaucratic and exposed to corruption. It was suspended immediately after independence in 1975 as the country toyed with socialism and nationalised everything but, one way or another, it was always possible to gain some sort of tentative grasp on property. You may not have been able to buy title to property, all of it then owned by the State, but you could buy the ‘Chaves’, the ‘Keys’. So, in spite of socialism, property continued to change hands. If you had enough spare cash, you could persuade the original occupants to find somewhere else to live and allow you to accommodate a growing family. The trouble was, you could not actually own it.

Imagine; millions and millions of dollars of potential wealth rendered useless.

It was rather like possessing a stolen work of art. Sure, you got to enjoy it and nominally it was worth a bomb but in reality, as an exchangeable commodity, it was worthless. Certainly no bank would accept it as collateral.

Granting legal title allows the entrepreneurial spirit access to finance, the little leg up they need to be able to look after themselves and have a degree of control over their own destiny. A chance for a better life.

It allows the many banks that have set up here in Angola and are keen to do business to lend, confident that their investments are covered. Empower the emergent middle classes and they will become the driving force of the economy.

And who are these emergent middle classes? Why, the very people who have found a vacant piece of countryside and have toiled to make something of it. No longer will its worth be measured in terms of the value of the cassava or maize it produces or the cattle that graze on it, it will have a tangible value legally recognised by government and financial institutions. It is the break they have all been waiting for without realising it.

For too long countries blessed or blighted (depending on your point of view), with incomparable mineral wealth have ignored the fundamentals, the God given sustainable resources that can be exploited with the sweat of man in favour of quick and invariably filthy lucre.

At last, a so called authoritarian and recently socialist government is taking the lead by granting the people what is theirs: personal security and above all, security of tenure.

The new property law comes into effect in Angola on the 15th of June.

Maybe the Economist should revise its growth forecast as there are thousands of bright minds and hard working individuals ready to go.

Thursday 8 May 2008

Wash day in Lubango

Every day as I drive to the site I pass these women busy doing their washing in a well by the side of the road.

Called M'Huilas, they are traditional to Huila Province, Angola.

I am told that the number of rings around the ankle denote the number of cattle each individual owns. Sadly, friendly as they are, I cannot talk to them for they do not speak Portuguese and I do not speak their tribal language.

The best part, however, was that when I offered to take their picture, rather than rush for bras and T-shirts, they all stuffed a rag on their heads. Only then would they allow me to take the photo.