Dennis Jones is a Jamaican-born international economist, who has lived most of the time in the UK and USA, and latterly in Guinea, west Africa. He moved back to the Caribbean in 2007. This blog contains his observations on life on this small eastern Caribbean island, as well as views on life and issues on a broader landscape, especially the Caribbean and Africa.







**You may contact me by e-mail at livinginbarbados[at]gmail[dot]com**

Monday, November 26, 2007

Guinea is waiting for change

During my two week return visit to Guinea a lot of people asked me if I noticed any major changes. I said that the first thing that I noticed immediately was the presence of lights as I entered the city by plane. To many travellers this may seem bizarre, but Conakry was known as the "dark capital". For years governments had been unable to provide regular and reliable electricity, even though the country has enormous hydroelectric generating capacity. Now on the road from the airport, which has recently been upgraded, there are solar powered pylons lighting the route.

There were other superficial positive changes that will also bring longer lasting benefits, such as the widening of the market for mobile phones, with four operators and a fifth coming soon. Telecommunication is the modern equivalent of a highway to one's door. Once access has been given, then all other places become accessible. There is also no limit to how people will use telecoms. Many recent stories of developing countries tell of how traders are using mobile phones to make markets; of how public opinion and information are spread by phone calls, etc. Just the fact t hat many people can easily maintain contact with others overseas brings tumbling down many barriers. The capabilities of modern phones also opens up a world of audio and visual knowledge. We have heard stories of how a robbery has been filmed by a cell phone. I know of people taping conversations with phones. Those who travel a lot know that many airports ban the use of cell phones until one has passed through Customs and immigration. And as Orwell wrote, "knowledge is power".

There are also some constants, such as the throngs of people on the main street in Conakry waiting for taxis (see picture above). There are the groups of youths playing football in the street. Future stars? Who knows? I have already written about the daily grind.

Guinea recently went through a major "social upheaval", when in January this year a national strike developed into a major push for political change, resulting in the death of over 30 people (in terms of official figures), and led to a change of government with one built around consensus and largely free of people who had previously held ministerial office. Now, over nice months later, the unspoken cry is for the change expected and promised after those strikes. There is a sense of foreboding as people assess the value of the deaths and social strain.

One area of life that I have seen where change is mixed is in the public administration. Public servants do not have a natural sense of serving the public, and many have been accused of privatizing the public service: only if one pays will one get service, and that payment does not go to the State. A sense of seriousness amongst public officials is something that is often lacking: poor comportment, sloppy dress, attitudes that show little care for those who seek service or make use of public building. This is not unique to Guinea and many will say it is a universal problem of public adminstration. I know many public servants who work so hard it's unimaginable how they keep living as they seem to shoulder every issue and have the ability to resolve many of them with good ideas. The ideas often fall due to lack of commitment on the part of politicians or opposition from other public officials, but dont deny that the ability is there.

How can one motivate most public servants to give that same high percentage to their work? I often talk of "sanctions", meaning that poor work has a harsh consequence with the ultimate being dismissal. Yes, that will bring social problems as a bread winner and family has to do without bread. But getting money on false pretences is theft. Some of the public administration failures are due to an unwillingness to recognize some simple truths, such as this.

In the early-1990s, Guinea suffered a failed coup and one of the symbols is the carcass of a bombarded "palace" (which has been built for African Union conferences and major public meetings etc). That it was never repaired has been for me a symbol of resistance to change; like holding on to old bus tickets. Now, I see that a set of Asian workers (Koreans, I understand) have begun to strip it down and begin refurbishing.
It may all be part of celebrations for Guinea's 50th anniversary of independence, in 2008, but it is a nontrivial development in my mind, and is more than cosmetic. Sometimes new social positions have to be built on new physical structures and this may be one of those cases.

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