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Such a different world now – with everything to play for

Oct 31, 2010 Strategy, Sunday Nation

When I was a boy, the world seemed a simple place. According to pretty much all the books and comics I read, and the TV shows and movies I watched, there were some self-evident truths about the world. These were some of them.

All the action was in the world was in the rich countries – America, Europe, Japan. Everything that mattered happened here. The rest of us were mere bystanders. Most of the world’s wealth, most of its talent, most of its intellectual capital, most of its ideas, were to be found in the rich world. Science, economics, art, literature, cuisine, innovation – it all came from the West.

The rest of us were in the “developing” countries – which meant we were somewhat retarded, largely impoverished, and in severe need of help. We could not be trusted to get by on our own and not ruin the world for everyone, such was our propensity and predisposition for violence, misgovernance, corruption and general chaos.

As a result, anyone who had any desire to be someone had to be in the developed world. If you had the misfortune to be born in one of the planet’s many backwaters, you really had to get the hell out, ASAP. You had to put all your efforts into getting a scholarship, a visa, a Green Card, a work permit. Those things were like gold dust, but your only hope lay in implementing an exit strategy from the prison you were born in.

Everyone from Tintin to James Bond, the Hardy Boys to Nancy Drew, confirmed it: everything that mattered happened in the West. America was the world’s economic giant; Europe the custodian of refined culture. They were the good guys. The Soviets, the Arabs and a few others were the bad guys. Asians, Africans and Latinos were poor, numerous, noisy, and dirty, but fortunately they led short lives.

Well, I was browsing through some facts and figures about the world the other day. It seems these days the top 50 fastest-growing cities in the world are all from “developing” nations, as are 8 of the 10 largest cities. The lowest fertility rates are in Macau, Hong Kong and South Korea. The world’s economic attention is not on America these days, but on the BRIC countries – Brazil, Russia, India and China. Seven of the ten largest holders of official foreign reserves are Asian.

Five of the world’s largest ten companies are Asian. Ten of the twenty countries that do the most travelling by air are emerging economies. In 2002-08, 85% of developing economies grew faster than America’s. Only half the world’s GDP now comes from the rich countries. I could go on, but do I need to? You get the picture. Whatever the world was 30 years ago, it isn’t now.

This is the world in which famed investor Jim Rogers says: “If you were smart in 1807 you moved to London, if you were smart in 1907 you moved to New York City, and if you are smart in 2007 you move to Asia.”

What Asia did in the last generation, Africa can do in the next. All we need is the same mix of educated population, enlightened leadership and economic discipline. And we have another advantage: in cyberspace and on the “Twitterverse”, there are no national boundaries, no rich and poor. It is the great leveller.

In the movie of my life, the second half is completely different from the first. Now, I get calls and e-mails from Kenyans wondering not if, but when, to return to their motherland. Now, I discuss strategy with Kenyans who want to extend their businesses to South Africa, and South Africans who want to set up in Brazil.

It’s all different now, and it’s all there to play for. Stop reading and go for it.

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