I’ve just returned from a lecture at Green College, Oxford. I’m a lucky chap: I can walk to Green College from my flat in less that ten minutes – and I pass two other colleges along the way!
I arrived a little early, yet already a queue tailed away from the underground lecture theatre and it quickly became apparent that the place was full. A couple of academics pushed their way through, mumbling something about taking dinner with the speaker afterwards. Then a number of the queuing students decided to give up and retire to the bar, and that’s why I found myself at the doorway. There an attractive young woman held back the throng whilst admitting the worthy. She took one look at me then, surprisingly, said:
“There is a place for you at the front sir.”
Hallelujah – there is some benefit in being old(er) beside the bus pass. I mumbled a thank you and made my elated and guilt ridden way to the front row, then sat in one of the reserved seats. I covered my stained jeans with my frayed coat, and then adopted what I hope was a worthy pose as I eyed the crush of students standing along each side of the room.
The speaker was my age, had a beard a little like mine, and there comparisons end. He wore a smart sports jacket, thick necktie and well-ironed trousers. His name was Paul Collier and he was introduced as a legend – as they usually are. His subject was ‘What will happen to African states?’It was great: calm, informative and informed, clear, unostentatious, unscripted and without slides.
I could not begin précis the whole talk, but the central theme was identity. Though the idea is probably not new to any of us its treatment as a basis for economic study was so to me. Paul mentioned a book entitled ‘Identity Economics’ by George A. Akerlof which asks the question, “How do you get a good plumber.” Not in the sense of finding one in yellow pages, but in the sense of how does a person get to be a good plumber (let’s say the plumber is a man since most are – at present). And the answer, apparently, is that the plumber identifies himself as a good plumber. He has pride in his work and his results and is self monitoring. He does not need carrots and sticks and constant checking by bean counters.
What’s all that got to do with Africa? Well, there are 54 states in that continent and, according to Professor Collier, they are mostly dysfunctional. The people of Africa do not trust them and there are plenty of reasons not to do so. We in Europe trust our states don’t we? And we identify with them, though we may have many identities (EU, Britain, Scotland...) Africans identify with localised groups within their states and distrust all others. They do not work together for the common good and their state does not work for their common good. Yet, the speaker argued, you need trusted states to do big things. One solution is to make Africa itself the trusted state. But the 54 states will not have it; they do not trust each other! Alternatively power might be handed down through devolution – a dangerous trend that is happening here (dangerous because it may never end – except in war (my comment)). However, in Belgium it seems to have reached a peaceful end since the place seems to function perfectly well without a government: Flanders and Wallonia, the two sub-regions, keep things going.
In common with many academics Paul Collier asks questions rather than providing answers, but the questions certainly stimulated my limited brain. There was a lot more; it was a good session; and free.
In the future I shall certainly know what to look for in a plumber should I ever cease to identify myself as the plumber. I’m not sure where do-it-yourself fits in to this idea of identity.