12.16.2011

The role of optimism in development


Yesterday, Mayor-elect Bob MacDonald of Lewiston apologized for his divisive comments after winning the election by 70 votes. This represented an about-face as just about everyone in town anticipated him announcing some sort of litigation against Paradis' election team for spreading rumors about his wife during the campaign. Of more interest to me is MacDonald's continuing yammering about Lewiston's reputation.

Sure. Growing up in Bath, everyone referred to Lewiston (and to a lesser degree Auburn) as the "arm-pit" of Maine. Like the smaller mill-towns in our state, Lewiston became a hole of poverty when manufacturing jobs fled south and then overseas. The crime rate was high. The flat-rooved French-Canadian architecture doesn't help our image either.

The city's reputation is a major obstacle for development. If people's perception of the city is poor, why would they shop, dine, or live here?

African development is another hobby interest of mine and the nations there face a similar dilemma. I hate to talk about a massive and diverse continent in such general terms, but at risk of sounding condescending, the entire place suffers from the same reputation: poverty and violence. While we cannot deny the existence of these troubles, emphasizing them has a detrimental affect on efforts to raise living standards.

In a recent Finance & Development article,
To the outside world, the symbolism of helping people living on a mere $1 a day had irresistible appeal. But the emphasis on aid did not encourage Africa to aspire to higher economic performance. A change in focus from poverty to gradually growing prosperity represents a deep shift in the perceptions of Africa’s economic future, with profound policy and practical implications. 
The traditional emphasis on eradicating poverty in Africa distracted both the African authorities and international donors from serious consideration of ways to promote prosperity: infrastructure development, technical education, entrepreneurship, and trade.
But things are looking a little brighter these days for the Dark Continent.* A new middle class is emerging. There's a lot of low-hanging fruit for African nations - especially access to technology. And while it's far from a perfectly peaceful transition, Africans are even redrawing the poor colonialist borders to make sense based on cultural and linguistic lines.

A new narrative on Africa is stimulating growth through improved investor, entrepreneurial and consumer confidence. We can and must do the same thing in Lewiston-Auburn.

Mr. MacDonald needs to change his tune if he's serious about improving things. Sure - we have a reputation - but whining about it in the media and making it your sole mayoral-campaign plank is not going to make it go away. Pragmatic optimism will help change these cities. 

L/A Magazine's Lewiston-Auburn Film Festival cites the "rich history and bright future" of the area as the reason for setting up a film festival here. Those of us working on Art Walk Lewiston Auburn do so to celebrate the real "vitality of the down-towns" and our arts. Mayor-elect Jonathan Labonte in Auburn also gets it.

We must stimulate confidence by highlighting our strengths and branding our community as a success. If we waste time on lamenting our reputation and deriding outsiders for propagating it, we will just perpetuate a poor image of ourselves. Mayor-elect Bob MacDonald's remarks about our reputation and his disdain for poor people might have resonated with pessimistic and indolent voters - but it accomplishes nothing except getting him elected.

*One journalist has already gotten into trouble for using the term "Dark Continent." This is the 21st century. I am of course referring to the dark history of colonialism, the lack of electricity seen from space, and the light-blocking canopy of Africa's many jungles - not the color of its residents' skin.

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