Bridging a technological valley

Jan 12th, 2010 | By | Category: International

In central Bujumbura, there was a traffic roundabout.  The red numbers on the digital clock shone brightly in the June night.  It called to mind a pharmacy in a French provincial town, outside of which there are digital clocks that inform passers by of the time, the date and the temperature.

My Burundian friend pointed at the clock, “We regard this as our city centre”.

There was a momentary temptation to say, “It’s not the Eiffel Tower or Marble Arch, is it?”  To have done so would have made little of a spot my friend regarded as important; no-one likes to hear their country criticised by foreigners.

As the bus wound its way down the hairpin bends of the Austrian mountain road, it seemed hard to imagine what most of the population of Africa would make of European buildings and infrastructure.  An OBB locomotive, pulling a lengthy goods train, rolled through the valley on a railway line that ran along the side of the mountain, hundreds of feet from the valley floor.

The bus reached the town where dozens of skiers got off to board other buses that provided shuttle services to various parts of the town.  Sitting on a bench, waiting for a bus that would stop within fifty metres of the hotel door, the infrastructure to run a single ski resort seemed extraordinary: a funicular railway, cable cars, chair lifts, an entire sophisticated transport system to allow holiday makers the opportunity to ski down mountain slopes.

The transport system is only the beginning of the requirements.  The ski runs are prepared with precise civil engineering and expensive piste machines, great road makers that go out each night to roll each of the runs to ensure that the ski-ing conditions are of the right quality for the next morning.  Set into the side of a mountain there was a concrete structure with doors one would expect from some light industrial building, the instructor said it was a pumping station for bringing water up the mountain for making artificial snow when sufficient natural snow has not fallen.  “Above it”, he said, “there is a reservoir for storing the water”.

It would be beyond the comprehension of my Burundian friend that the huge cost of building a reservoir near the top of a mountain in order to provide water to make snow for people to have an opportunity to ski.

This single Austrian resort, only one among many In Europe, has more by way of sophisticated infrastructure than most African nations.  Where across most of the countries of central Africa is one likely to find the sort of technology that allows the building of state of the art cable cars?

How can we manage extraordinary sophistication in the building of holiday facilities when we cannot achieve the most basic facilities for hundreds of millions of people?

The cables and the cars that cross this valley are made possible by market economics, somehow those same economics must be made to work to provide infrastructure for the poorest,  including a new Bujumbura.

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  1. Ian,
    Could it be that market economics as an organising principle of society is precisely the reason that people in places like Bujumbura do not have the most basic facilities?

  2. I would agree, but it would seem to be the only game in town. Somehow there needs to be a way of reforming the market system so as to ensure the huge disparities are addressed.

  3. I didn’t know that conditions were manufactured for the resorts….in my innocence I’d imagined that you simply used whatever snow fell and that the skiers made the tracks! Makes you think about the economics….and Kajiado (in my case) or …. wherever ….

  4. Liz,

    Reading a report from Kajiado and contemplating cable car going across the skyline would make you wonder about the world!

  5. Ian, in your heart you know the answer. There were the Babylon Gardens. Pyramids. Taj Mahal. And countless starving people. It was ever thus. Now that I think of it, there is a very fine church in London, St. Paul’s. Very sophisticated, I would venture. How many impoverished people live within 10 miles of it?Worshipping god and/or skiing appear to require man to develop structures to help him in his worship.
    Man is by nature not really an individual, but part of a group, society if you will. Following a belief, whether skiing or god, tends to blind people to the needs of others.
    Apologies for the short-hand nature of my reply.

  6. I told David McWilliams one day that I thought that there were two endemic things that must be considered for a Christian response to economics: one was sinfulness (or selfishness, call it what you like), and the other was the market (if people want something enough they will strive to find some way to pay for it.

    Sin and the market need to be addressed if things in Bujumbura, or around Saint Paul’s, are to change.

  7. Interesting juxtaposition.

  8. not so far apart, really. except for the god/faith thing!

  9. One of the things that makes me a Protestant is a belief in individual conscience, making it possible to share ground with anyone who shares similar values 😉

  10. Hmm not much to add here but I think selfishness has a stake in this. We do have altruistic motives towards the third world at large but aren’t really prepared to follow through with economic support or helping them develop even the most basic infrastructure. I wonder if things would be different if we ‘needed’ their resources. Enjoy your piste!

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