Whatever are we doing to do with our elderly? Put them in retirement homes?

What will happen to these old people?

What will happen to these old people?

China’s One-Child-Policy is one of the most  an interesting social engineering experiments that I’ve ever come across. One on hand, you cannot see any other way forward for the government; especially with a population of 1.35 billion people. 20-odd million people live in Beijing, a number that really hits you when you try to use the subway during rush hour. People are packed, sardine-like, into each compartment with barely space to breath, let alone move. Getting on and off is a struggle in itself; I’ve seen people miss their stops simply because they couldn’t wade through the human crush. Everyday, I I’m left mind-blown by all the humanity that surrounds me.

The policy, which has been able to somewhat keep things in check population-wise, has, as radical policies are wont to do, opened a can of worms. One of the biggest ‘worm’ in the lot is the issue of what exactly to do with old people. In China, as in most developing nations, children shoulder the responsibility of taking care of their elderly parents. While this isn’t a problem in other countries because the burden is shared by the siblings, here in China the burden falls on one person. So, not only does a married couple have to take care of themselves and any child they have, they also have to take care of four other dependents, namely their parents. This has caused widespread discontent and handwringing.

One of the solutions that the government is looking at increasing the retirement age but even they know that it is a short-term solution. At the end of the day, something has to give. An eerie model village I visited outside Beijing revealed the future. It took me awhile to realise why I found it strange; I finally figured out why. There were almost no young people in the village. All the young people had left to seek their fortune in the big city. Thankfully, the local council helped the old people as much as possible. Either way though, this village sans young people seemed rather sad and desolate.

This got me thinking about my grandparents in Umutara. Fortunately, there are still enough relatives living in the village to monitor and take care of them but I can only imagine just how desperate things would be if there weren’t there to do so. They fetch them water, take care of the calves, produce food, ensure that they take their medication, wash their clothes, clean their homes and take them to hospital when they get ill. And most important, they keep them company. This state of affairs is tenable now but it wont in the next few years to come.

When we examine Rwanda’s development plans, one of the things that stand out is the role of

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Looks like they are having a great time, right?

rural-urban migration amid increased urbanisation. This migration will result in young people fleeing the countryside to seek employment in the cities. Which is great. These people will be the workforce that Rwandan industry needs to move forward. However, that will leave the elderly in a pickle. The people who produced their food? Gone. Their primary caregivers? Gone. Even if their relatively well to do relations living in the cities keep sending them money for their upkeep, this will simply become a stop-gap move. So, what will happen next? The old men and women will move to the cities to live with their children. And as anyone knows,city living isn’t cheap. Guess who will have to bear that burden? The children. Throw in the fact that the elderly come with a myriad of challenges such as dementia, Alzheimer’s and other medical issues that need professional care and one can only imagine the stress that ensures.

 

In developed nations, the retirement home business is a booming industry. When the elderly are unable to take care of themselves, they go to these homes, where they find good, professional caregivers. While it seems harsh to send them there, in fact they are better catered for than if they’d remained with their children. I can understand why someone would be opposed to them, but imagine this situation. Would you prefer to sit in front of the television all day, forced to have conversations with the domestic  help because no one else was home or would you prefer to be surrounded by people your age, medical professionals without feelings like you were being a burden?

 

The treatment of the elderly is something that we will have to tackle. Assuming that the status quo will remain indefinitely is foolhardy.

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How to leverage Rwanda’s soft power?

Knowing that winter is upon you and actually having to experience it are two different things. Beijing weather can be a fickle beast. Last week it was warm enough to walk outside in shorts and a teeshirt but all that has changed. As I write this week’s column in my dorm room overlooking the city, my fingers are numb and I’m swaddled like a child to keep the chill at bay. However, don’t throw me a pity party because, while I’m certainly missing home’s tropical weather, the opportunity to live and study here has allowed me to study at close quarters China’s operating system, if I might call it that, in some detail.

In 2007, former Chinese president Hu Jintao told the 17th Communist Party Congress that Chinacapture-d_c3a9cran-2012-01-16-c3a0-21-56-43 needed to increase its ‘soft power’. Soft power, the concept coined by Harvard University don, Joseph Nye, in his 1990 book, Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power and then developed further in his 2004 book Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics, describes the ability to attract, rather than use force or give money (bribe/aid, whatever you want to call it) as a means of persuasion. The United States is the master of this approach. You can see it simply by switching on your television. More often than not, you’ll be assailed by Hollywood. Don’t for one second think that this kind of constant media blitzkrieg doesn’t affect your perception of what America is.

So, why was the Chinese leadership so taken up with the idea of soft power? What could they possibly hope to gain from it? What I’ve learnt while here is the fact that although China is rightly proud of its economic might, it’s leadership worries that they are misunderstood and seen in a continuously negative light, especially in the West. When most Westerners (especially Americans) are asked to opine on China, they are quick to slam it on its human rights record, treatment of Tibet, lack of religious freedoms, pollution and corruption. This despite the fact that the have probably have never actually spent a day in the country. What that negative perception directly impacts China’s stated goal of sustained, nonthreatening growth. If you’re one of the thousands of Star Times subscribers, you will have probably watched CCTV’s english news broadcasts. The state broadcaster, which the government invested billions of dollars in, actively seeks to present a more nuanced and positive image of China to the rest of the world in order to counter the usual China bashing that we’ve come to expect from the Western media.

On Monday, I was surprised to learn that Charles Taylor, Liberian ex-president and convicted war criminal, had asked the Special Court in The Hague to send him to complete his 50-year jail term in Rwanda, rather than the UK because of worries that his life would be jeopardized. Not only was I  taken aback by his request, I’m pretty sure his jailers were as well. He obviously had heard positive things about the governance of Rwanda’s penitentiary system. And in a larger context, the way Rwanda itself was governed. That is soft power in a nutshell; the ability to positively influence the way people think about you and make them want to be a part of your process.

 

Soft power at work. Rwandan peacekeepers in Darfur

Soft power at work. Rwandan peacekeepers in Darfur

I know that Rwanda doesn’t have the billions of dollars that the Chinese government uses to splurge on adverts on New York’s Times Square and international television broadcasting. But what it does have is a compelling story. We need to figure out how to tell this story ourselves to our targeted audience. Currently, Rwanda gets hundreds of thousands of tourists every year. What kind of impression do we give them when they meet Rwandans in the streets, in the hotels they sleep in and the restaurants they have their meals?  People to people interaction could be one of our strong suits, but I feel that we are punching below our weight in this regard. How about on social media? How well do we broadcast ourselves online? Do we tell our story as well as we could?

We are the nation that pulled a million people out of poverty in half a decade. We are the nation whose peacekeepers are one of the UN’s most prized. Our women are making the kinds of strides that confuse statisticians. We are growing economically at extraordinary rates, especially when measured against the expectations. We have a story to tell and its time that we told it. Any way we can. Whether its through a conversation with a visitor or a 140 character tweet. We cannot allow Rwanda to be defined by others because once their definitions stick, its almost impossible to change people’s mentalities.

The US government shuts down and we are the failed state? Aint that a b***!

Today, the US government has officially shut down shop in word, if not in deed. As of today 800,000 federal workers have been forced to go on unpaid leave; the 1.4 active duty military personnel will have their paychecks delayed but will stay on duty and NASA, the space exploration body, will send almost all their employes home. While tourists will be able to get visas from US embassies worldwide forget about visiting Yosemite National Park or even the Statue of Liberty. They will be closed until further notice.

Closed for business but for how long?

Closed for business but for how long?

The impact of this government shutdown will not stay simply an American issue. If it was, I wouldn’t comment on it but that is not the way things work when it comes to matters pertaining to the sole global superpower. Currently, the global economy is only just getting back to its feet, and we cannot underestimate just how much potential damage this shutdown can cause. If more than a million Americans arent getting their paychecks on time, they will not be able to ‘shop til they drop’. And guess who suffers when this happens? All the nations that export to the US market. Guess whats the first thing that Americans will remove off their shopping lists? Exotic coffee and peace baskets.

How did this come to pass? Because the US House of Representatives, dominated by the Republican Party’s Tea Party wing, decided to play ‘who will blink first’ with the White House and the Democratic Party-dominated Senate. Why? Because they wanted to make funding the government until mid-December contingent upon a one-year delay on the Affordable Care Act (otherwise known as Obamacare). Never mind that the law was passed three years ago and that the Supreme Court had ruled on its constitutionality.

I find it mind boggling that, in this day and age, US politicians are still debating the merits and demerits of mandatory healthcare for uninsured citizens. I mean, even here in Rwanda, with our minuscule GDP, we have managed to insure the vast majority of our citizens. But what really confuses me is that this disagreement and political posturing has gone so far. I mean, who in their right mind shuts down the government?

We are taught that the US model of government, with its ‘checks and balances and governing versus opposition party system’ is what we all should aspire to. Well, I think that that is simply untrue. Its system has morphed into an uncontrollable, out of touch monster. They cannot pass anti-gun laws despite the fact that victims of gun crimes are reaching catastrophic levels. This latest issue is just a symptom of the the larger malaise. What really grates is the fact that no one can do a thing about it. Its just become too big and complicated. Politicians seem like they care more about making political points than actually governing.

In Rwanda, the ruling party works WITH not AGAINST the opposition parties (and vice versa). While this rubs some people the wrong way, antagonistic politics simply doesn’t work. At least in my opinion. I cannot even imagine a situation where such a shut down would occur here. And still we are the ones whose democracy and governing methods is put to task. I think it should be the other way around.