The culture of productivity


By Dr. Sam Amadi

Last Thursday, a young friend visited my office. He used to work with PWC, a consulting firm. He used to attend my biweekly youth leadership program – Joseph Company – where we try to help young Nigerians understand the basics of transformative leadership and entrepreneurship. For a long time I did not hear about him. Suddenly I met him moderating a zoom policy meeting where I was a presenter. He was very impressive. I requested his friend to ask him to visit so we can brainstorm.

He informed me that he left PWC for a masters program in China on scholarship. He is one of the thousands across Africa and the rest of the world who are on scholarship or fellowship paid by China and its many institutes. We shared views about how China is dealing with the pandemic and the increasing rivalry with the US. I was impressed he chose China for his graduate studies in economic management. China has a lot to offer to developing countries on how to move away from stagnancy to prosperity.

Then he made a revelation which aligns with the theme of the discourse. In China, young entrepreneurs are not concerned as much with making money as much as just been productive. He informed me that he had not met Chinese youths who talked about how they wanted to make money unlike Nigerian youths. This is unbelievable. China is producing the largest number of billionaires in the world, far more than any other country apart from the US. And China just started the journey to market economy only in 1978. And it started with an aplomb when Deng declared that “wealth is glorious”. How then did China prioritize wealth creation without entrenching the culture of mindless and pedestrian materialism?

In Nigeria, almost all young persons are everyday thinking and talking about making money. I am sure many of us have young sons and daughters who are still undergraduates who would say something like “Dad, I want to make money. You know, all these books don’t create money. X and Y sold their apps for $200m. So and so are making money through YouTube, etc”.

Of course, nothing is wrong wanting to make plenty money. But the difference is while the folks in China are focused on production: on designing apps, on building software, which would lead to wealth creation; their counterparts in Nigeria are mostly more focused on making money and not necessarily on creating stuffs (before you kill me or walk away, note that this does not apply to all Nigerians. A few are still busy peering into a logarithm or crushing data. This is about the general or average).

This is not bashing the Nigerian. It is not a new sport of de-marketing the country. This is about a culture. Because in Nigeria wealth or basically money is overrated; it gives you so much undeserved privileges, so we are obsessed about ‘making money’. This is not the fault of the young ones. It is because of the collapse of cultural and social value under the jackpot of militarism and personalized rule. Everyday people see how money speaks. There is no sector that is immune to the oversized influence of money. Money gives you high political office whether or not you have the moral or technical pedigree; money can even guarantee you the highest professional or academic honors in Nigeria irrespective of your mediocre performance. We see this happening everyday. This places a compulsion on the Youbg Nigerian to ‘make money’ by all means necessary.

The implication of this obsession with ‘making money’ is that it crowds out the hunger for production. Entrepreneurs and inventors are not driven by the obsession to make money. Ideally money becomes the reward for production in a market economy. The founder of zoom is now a billionaire. He probably did not see such wealth coming. He may have been driven by the glory of blazing a path. He may have been encouraged by commitment to change the game a little. He may have been lured by the special effect of cracking a puzzle, of disrupting an existing pattern. That is the universe of innovation and creativity. People sign up for the tough task because they are stimulated and society places great premium on successful breakthrough not necessarily on the balance sheet.

In the southeast we boast that we are entrepreneurial. It may not necessarily be so again. Yes our young men and woman are striving hard across the world. But they may no longer be real entrepreneurs. They are the modem consumptive; they are new hedonists worshiping at the alter of quick money. In those days, some of my uncles who were traders lived in 3 bedroom flats even after they built and rented out multiple duplexes. They are entrepreneurs, focusing on creating more values. Some of them started new lines of business and watched those businesses grow and they moved to unknown lines and watched those new lines also grow. Their real excitement was that they were pioneers. They consumed less and displayed less wealth. Their drive was value creation. But I also observed amongst my 419 brothers a different spirit and culture. Those are consumptives. Their glory is in the cash at hand. They always look forward to Christmas to live big. They just love money because of the privileges it confers on them. These two groups are wealthy. But they live in different moral universes; they are governed by two different cultures. One is governed by love of enterprise and the other by the love or lure of money.

Scholars have argued that morality, defined as social conventions, largely determines economic activities. When Lew Kuan Yew boasted about the superiority of Asian Confucian culture as the secret of the region’s outstanding economic performance many took offense at unjustified Asian exceptionalism. The concern was that the venerable leadership icon seemed to be making a case for authoritarian logic in public leadership. Democracy should work for every people if backed with coherent values and structures. But beyond a case for authoritarianism, Singapore is a case that the quality of social morality which is a function of the interplay between religion, culture and social dialectics, is a major determinant of economic destination of nations. Even in a nation-state we see divergent conventional morality which scholars term social capita. The quality and nature of the social capita of different regions or social groups largely account for where they stand in the hierarchy of economic success.

Professor Putnam long ago brought out this insights with regards to divergent development between North and South Italy. The outstanding Igbo developmental burst in Nigeria between 1930-1980 is another proof of how social capita makes a difference. Within a couple of decades, a largely underdeveloped cluster of villages came together to overtake their better politically organized and developed federates in economic and political development. The recent retardation of Igbo economic and social well-being since 1990s is a result of the destruction of the culture and morality of enterprise and its substitution with the culture of consumption and of unmerited privilege accorded to money. We can represent this decay as moving from Asia to Middle East. We have moved from a commitment to productivity to a commitment to consumption.

Does this movement have anything to do with the political economy of oil? Is it an extended effect of the Dutch Disease? Is this moral transition part of the governance structure of the Nigerian state; or dictated by the constitutional order that sanctions unmerited access to resources and privileges?

It is interesting to note that China is largely a meritocracy. No one becomes a Governor of a province if they have not established pedigree in a lower office. In such a society obsession with ‘making money’ may be needless because money does not buy you much recognition and political status. An Asiwaju cannot buy the Secretaryship of the Communist Party of China. So why bother so much?

In Nigeria, money buys you everything under the sun? You can be a Governor or a President or even a Vice Chancellor of a university with questionable certificate or genealogies; with zero experience in even taking minutes of a meeting or adding simple figures. In such a world, every young person would be in a hurry to make money and not make great products or good literature.

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