Friday, 26 February 2010

Who wants to be first?

A few weeks ago this column was entitled “1st, 2nd or 3rd“ and it was my feeble attempt to suggest that it’s up to us in Botswana to decide whether our country is considered a 1st, 2nd or 3rd world country.

Of course I know that some people still use these terms and base them on things like GDP, average income and other economic indicators but my point was more about how a country is perceived. More importantly I was trying to suggest that if we decide to define ourselves as a 1st world country then that is how (to a limited extent) we will appear to the people of other countries.

Yes, before you shake your head, mutter insults and dismiss me as a fool, I know that this argument is riddled with errors but nevertheless I’m very attached to it. I really DO think that our self-image determines to some extent how we are seen.

It was also a plea against that argument you hear from many people, and not just whining expatriates, that “Ah, this is Botswana, you can’t expect any better.” I think it is enormously offensive to put our country down like that, regardless of who you are and where you’re from.

Anyway, despite a few negative comments after the article, about how my view was simplistic and a couple of defeatist comments how we just ARE a 3rd world nation and we should learn to live with it, I stick with the argument.

However I can’t help thinking about this again as I sit here in a country that everyone would consider a truly 1st world nation. Shall I name the place or shall I just give you clues? Well, it’s a theocracy, the Head of State also being the Head of the official State religion. No. it’s not The Vatican, I’m not on a cross-dressing holiday. The Head of State’s inbred, chinless, eldest son recently stated that he wasn’t too happy with the enlightenment values of science, reason and progress and said life wouldn’t be worth living if there weren’t swallows nesting in his roof. No, I’m not making this nonsense up.

It’s also a nation of mollycoddled, hugely over-indulged, moaning citizens who are seemingly not content with an entirely free health system.

Yes, I’m in the Disunited Queendom.

Everyone in the world would agree that the UK is 1st world. The average wage is high, there’s free health care and education and the internet here operates unbelievably quickly. On that subject let me inspire some jealousy. The house I’m staying in has a very low internet connection speed by UK standards. It’s only 8 times faster than the fastest connection offered by Orange for instance. Instead of the P1,899 you would pay for the Orange connection in Botswana, do you know what they pay here?

Nothing. It comes free with their telephone connection.

Now of course I understand that this is an unfair comparison. You can’t really compare a “1st world” country like the UK which has a huge population in a tiny space with Botswana with it’s tiny population and enormous size. It’s one area where countries like the UK will always outstrip us.

But what about the service here? Is customer service 1st world quality? Yes and No. In parts the service is great, just like in Botswana. Also in parts it’s just crap. Just like in Botswana. On average it’s just mediocre. Just like in Botswana. Since I arrived here some service has been friendly, cheerful and attentive. On the other hand, on two occasions so far in the last 24 hours, I’ve just walked out of stores and taken my money elsewhere. Just like I’ve been known to do back at home.

I realise that I can’t really claim that we’re 1st world just because we’re as bad at service as a 1st world country but I DO think it means we can’t use our sometimes poor service delivery to justify our 3rd world self-image.

I also don’t think this means we should market ourselves as “Botswana, the country with slow internet access and service no worse than anywhere else, on a good day”. But I do think we can use this to realise that as far as service is concerned, we don’t actually have THAT far to go before we can truly claim to be as good as it gets.

We even have certain advantages over the poor Brits. I’m not sure whether it’s the appallingly dull weather, the cold climate or something to with the recession but the people here are seriously unfriendly. Several times I’ve gone into stores or restaurants and have politely greeted whoever was servicing me, only to be met with a look of shock. I’m sure they think I’m trying to proposition them, sell them drugs or kill them for meat.

It’s also startling how dissatisfied and ungrateful they are too, despite all their economic advantages and even after financial meltdown. It reminds you just starting we can be.

So I think my plea, from far, far away is for us all to decide how we want to be seen. We can’t ever compete as the technological centre of the world but I think we have the ability to compete as a customer service centre. If we tried just a little bit harder, if we showed a bit more patriotism we could certainly compete with ay country around the world. And guess what? THAT is what attracts tourists, not just lions.

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