Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Trivia and Poverty in Sudan

Sudan is a very poor country. Even an oil boom has not been able to raise per capita GDP above $2,000. The median income is so low that no one has been able to estimate it.

Sudan has spent the last two months prosecuting 11 women for wearing pants, supposedly a violation of the country’s dress code, although female and male workers in Sudan wear pants every day and have always done so. One who insisted on taking her case to trial is now in jail.

These might sound like two random factoids about Sudan, but they go together. Sudan is poor not because it lacks resources, but because the people who run the country spend too much of their time focusing in trivia, instead of focusing on what might make the country successful.

The “trousers” story has been the biggest news story in Sudan for two months. It has been mischaracterized, especially within the country, as a clash between western style and the country’s religious tradition and law. The truth is closer to the opposite. The equivalent in the United States would be if the police started to haul people into court for wearing blue jeans on Sunday.

A country can’t prosper with that approach. It is always harder than it seems to use governmental authority to change the culture of a country. The government loses legitimacy when it attempts such changes without the most compelling reasons. Using the weight of government to try to create a new fashion rule, as Sudan is doing here, is the kind of corrupt bumbling that makes people question the country’s stability, not just around the world, but also within its own borders.

If only Sudan would pay so much attention to its farmers. Sudan’s farms, historically its economic base, have been ravaged by decades of bureaucratic planning that, more often than not, have seen it exporting low-value crops to the world market while not growing enough food for its own use. Solving that problem could make Sudan a prosperous country. Finding a way to settle the chaotic conditions along its eastern and western borders could make it a stable country. As for trousers — sometimes a government has to just say, “It’s no big deal.”