Here’s another fascinating essay in Lapham’s Quarterly: on how nineteenth century English and American novels are now more applicable to developing countries than to the countries they were written in. Countries like Indonesia, Nigeria and Brazil are urbanizing at a fantastic rate, and experiencing the attendant problems of overcrowding, waste disposal and urban poverty that made London and other places so hellish and so rich in stories back when Dickens was writing. Lacking a social safety net they are also characterised by a fine-grained economic stratification which starts at the bottom layer with those who collect plastic rubbish off the streets.

The article’s discussion of and interviews with the small business men who are one or two strata up reminded me of this post about this photography project: documenting the middle classes in Africa. As they both rightly point out, what we hear about in the news is the exceptionally poor (like, the starving) and the exceptionally rich dictators of Africa. An ordinary life in most African countries doesn’t resemble either of these one bit: it’s probably filled with school and then after graduation, working 10 or more hours a day on any money making project you can find. What this means is that many African countries are intensely entrepreneurial: people are starting up businesses at a hell of a rate. In fact, this is something I’ve actually got data on: check out GEM, the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor. GEM tells us that in Algeria, Morocco, Uganda and South Africa, 17, 16, 34 and 6 percent of the national population (respectively) is engaged in early-stage entrepreneurial activity. This is by contrast with 4 percent in France, 6 percent in the UK and 8 in America.

Of course the big thing holding most of these young businesses back from creating more economic growth is their access to credit, which is why micro-credit is such a brilliant notion. However I don’t know how far up micro-credit systems tend to go: my worry would be that there’s a gap between micro-credit levels of cash and the amounts lent out to substantial businesses that regular banks are not filling. Note to self: go do more research.

I think I got the original link to Lapham’s Quarterly from Arts and Letters Daily. I do try to attribute this stuff properly, but there tends to be quite a gap between finding and posting so I’m not always sure. Anyway, go there, it’s  great.