Jun 10 2009

Jane Jacobs v. Qatar

by at 3:45 pm under Uncategorized

“Money don’t buy class…” were the words whispered to me when my mother saw what was being served to us by our wealthy hosts–stouffer’s lasagna. I think that Jane Jacobs might feel a similar sentiment about the Arab emirate of Qatar, second highest GDP per capita nation in the world.

Jacobs uses the beautiful phrase, “Cathedrals in the Desert” to describe nations that purchase “development” (or so they think) by implanting foreign factories and business in an otherwise empty economy. Qatar’s overall strategic plan is more nuanced. Instead of placing “Cathedrals,” they wish to purchase intellectual superiority over their neighbors in the Middle East in order to become the center of education in a region that often bans learning for many of its citizens.

One thing that I love about reading Jane Jacobs is the confidence she permeates in her own theories and the way she dismisses attempts of economic development without resorting to condescension. She writes about nations making the same mistakes over and over again but always with the best intentions. However, her perspective on the hamlets outside Tokyo provides hope for Qatar’s economic strategy. This city accepted the overwhelming economic influences of Tokyo during its expansion and profited from changes beyond its control. This reminded me of an article in the New York Times on two-hundred year old municipal bonds the city still pays out because before 1900 a hamlet outside the city limits realized that New York would eventually swallow them up and they might as well take out as many loans as possible since someone else would have to pay them off. In the same manner, Qatar realizes that as the Middle East becomes more liberalized in education, someone will need to accept the increasing number of students and it might as well be them.

I do not know what specific advice Jacobs would give to such a small, oil-rich country as Qatar in today’s economic environment. Oil constantly appears to be on the verge of being replaced by green technology, but the economic reality appears to be that oil will be valuable until we either run out or the environment is in such ruin that a worldwide massive reduction (somehow with enforcements) can be organized. Neither seems to be happening soon. The tragedy is that when oil prices finally do collapse, the economies that have been relying on them will be even more backwards compared to the those who have built industry without huge natural resources. It seems that any plan is better than no plan.

Just as money can make people blind to reality, economic wealth nationally can make countries blind to their own precarious position. Qatar is doing everything it possibly can to become the center of education, including attracting Georgetown and many other universities, in the Middle East. However, it might be wise to consider the “exit strategies” of these Western Universities. When will it be possible to educate the Middle East without help from the West as today we educate the West without assistance from the Middle East. Collaboration for learning is not a bad thing, but intellectual reliance could be extremely damaging.

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