A couple of days ago, our family boarded a plane in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe to return home to Ottawa, Canada. While the travel distance and intensity isn’t the greatest I’ve ever done in my life (once I flew twice — in a week — from here to Israel and Victoria, BC) — it certainly reflected the greatest climatic change, about 50 degrees celsius. Brrr.
Returning home also brings returning (after some adjustment) to routines and business — and I expect to resume the break from regular daily blog postings on Monday, Jan. 8.
This travel had qualities more related to tourism and vacation than great insights and discoveries. Certainly there was nothing like the life-changing epiphany that I experienced in 1980 relatively near where we travelled this time. I had no right (or desire) to force cultural or historical insights onto my wife and son; so we focused on tourist attractions including African wildlife sightings. (It is one thing to see zebras, giraffes, elephants and a lion pride a zoo; it is quite another to see the animals in their natural habitat.)
Yet the vacation still provided some helpful understandings of the world’s diversity, which I will summarize here:
Corruption is a real problem in most of the world.
We certainly know about procurement scandals in Canada and the US. These seem like child’s play compared to the “business buying” that goes on elsewhere, especially in countries without a stable currency and where basic civil service pay is so low that the government workers need to be corrupt to survive.
Corruption certainly messes up conventional marketing concepts and for those with less-than-pure ethical standards (which may reflect many more people than we would like to openly acknowledge), the corruption payoffs could be seen as marketing budget costs. There also is the slippery slope. When does legitimate client entertainment and good-will gifts stretch to bribery?
Capacity/infrastructure costs vary and could reflect significant business advantages/disadvantages.
Logically, you might think that telecom and internet costs shouldn’t be much different between Zimbabwe and South Africa; they are closely linked, bordering countries. But in Zimbabwe, Internet is expensive; so costly that hotels grant usage cards allowing enough capacity to receive a few emails and view a few webpages before they shut out. Conversely, mobile roaming data plans in South Africa (even through a third-party roaming service) are less expensive than similar plans in Canada.
Undoubtedly businesses adjust to their environment. With limited Internet access in Zimbabwe, for example, I simply focused on critical issues and accepted some radio silence. (It helped that I was there in the quiet period between Christmas and New Years.) However, if you have a competitive advantage in lower infrastructure and tax/administration costs, it is helpful to use these to your advantage. As well, of course, you may consider shifting resources and administration costs to lower-cost places; but be aware of the challenges — if the costs are too low and the infrastructure is week, expect serious reliability problems.
There’s poverty everywhere. There’s also beauty, opportunity and adventure if you are willing to look outside your cocoon.
Certainly, we lived our recent travel experience within the safety of luxury accommodations and business class airline travel (not wasting money on the fares; thanks to some luck, points and planning). But we also caught glimpses of the real world, sometimes from brief escapes from the travel cocoon, and sometimes through structured activities such as a half-day tour of Johannesburg’s Soweto neighbourhood.
I realized the human spirit and complexity. Certainly the young guys bugging us to purchase curios were annoying, but, heck, if you are in an extremely poor country and extremely (by your standards wealthy) people are walking by, would you not want to see if you could extract some of their money. That said, most people live their lives within their aspirations, dreams, and environment and share some common sense and community spirit to resolve issues and improve their lives.
We didn’t change the world on our recent trip, and we only saw a glimpse of its diversity through our sheltered and safe haven experiences. But we saw enough to sense some optimism. I’m thankful for the experience.