I recently got to attend an IT conference in Cluj-Napoca. This is a medium-sized town in the North of Romania. Romania is one of the poorest countries in the European Union and Cluj is far from the capital city. While it is not impossible, access to Cluj is not always easy, at least not as easy as Munich or Amsterdam -- or Bucharest. Yet, we had nearly 400 participants at this conference. These were largely young, dynamic, hard-working people, who were passionate enough about their work and the future of their industry to be willing to sit through very varied levels of presentations (as with all conferences).
This got me thinking about how we, in the wealthy West, treat other nations. Romania is seen, as are Poland, Ukraine, Bulgaria and others, as stealing our jobs and undermining our economy. I believe that this is a profoundly unjust attitude. We are obsessed with economic growth, which has led us into the financially disastrous situation in which we find the world today. Financial journalists and politicians are examining GDP numbers continuously to see if, at the end of any given quarter, we are in recession or not. In fact, the economy has been flat for several years and the "recession" (double-dip, triple-dip) is entirely based on whether the numbers have gone down by a fraction of a percentage point on the last day of the quarter. If they have gone up by micrometre on the last day, then all is well and we are in recovery. Of course, this is all nonsense and we are in the grips of a much more disastrous situation, which we are happy to ignore because of our obsession with the bottom line.
There is a rapidly expanding economy, which will grow even faster in the coming years. These "new" economies are not going to maintain their market share by being the cheapest, they are soon going to show they can develop their own products rather than just work to order; they are going to change from cheap to high-quality, like Japan did fifty years ago (when I was a child, the words "made in Japan" meant it would break within a week; Toyota, Sony and the others have changed that significantly).
In a few years, Pakistan will have established itself as a peaceful democratic economy and will look back at history. When they need to decide to whom they should show their allegiance, with whom they should side in case of global differences, they will have to choose between Russia (who invaded them), the Taliban (who oppressed them), Europe and the US (who send guns and soldiers) or China (who invested heavily in building infrastructure, factories, roads, etc). The answer seems relatively obvious.
We live in a global village, there is no reason not to buy something at the other side of the world, particularly when that something is knowledge or computer software, which can be transmitted at the speed of electricity. Investing in the developing countries, former communist countries, or poorer nations in Asia and in Africa, should become a global priority. We do not need to send charity, we need to send jobs. In a world in which we are more and more dependent on service and knowledge industries and not heavy industries, we could open research and development centres in distant countries, this would require (of course) building some infrastructure, satellite dishes for communication, schools to train up the people -- yet the result would probably still be cheaper than using our over-universityized, self-satisfied Western graduates. In addition, we would create a friendly relationship within these areas helping us maintain a respectable level of quality and productivity. But more importantly, we would provide education. The data show that countries with higher levels of education have lower birth-rates, lower child mortality rates, but also, a higher probability of living in peace. Peace and prosperity appear to be even more directly related to the level of education of women. Within the engineering world, there is no reason for women not to have the same level of education and employment as men -- at the conference in Cluj, we had approximately a 40%-60% split!
Reaching out with our service industry, investing in Lybia, in Nigeria, in Pakistan, in Azerbaijan and in all those other countries should be a priority for the wealthy Western world. The economic potential of countries like Romania should not be a surprise and should not be limited to the lucky few. With some intelligent investment, we should be able to give the world a job, a meal and the option to sleep peacefully at night. Given the opportunity, they are ready, willing and able.