I read this morning (admittedly I’m late to the news here) that Chinese investors have gobbled up over 300ha of vineyards in the Awatere Valley (the old Otuwhero Estate Wines). Although I’m sure there will be a little soul-searching over here as to what that means, the last say on the matter went to those in charge of overseeing the sale:
Jarrold told the Marlborough Express that the acquisition was ‘a good thing’ for the land and for local jobs.
Before I begin launching into this I have to make it quite clear (not least after my previous post) that there is no xenophobic level to this post, I only want to question why we see investment and acquisition as a good thing.
My point is that praising investment is all too easy in business-speak and it’s a business-speak that rarely gets too much attention. After all, investment must be good right? Essentially it comes from the notion that money in our society is distributed to the people from the top down. It implies that investment in a region means that the money from that investment will eventually dribble down to the vineyard workers, the bottling lines and the peripheral businesses of winemaking.
For starters, its a nasty notion. It effectively condones the lifting of skirts for any amount of cash you care to name.
I remember reading an outraged post by someone on facebook recently who pointed to the fact that women beggars in London were hoooked on alcohol and drugs, giving the cash from their begging to their ‘landlords’ (organised crime bosses) and distributing the small children with which they went begging on the Underground between each other. The reason these children were always asleep during the day was because they’d been kept up all night by their ‘mothers’ drinking. Finally, the post urged people not to give their spare change to such beggars because the children saw nothing of it and it was all handed over to organised crime.
I couldn’t help thinking that in our current adoration of top-down wealth distribution, precisely the opposite should be demanded: that we give more money to the beggars so that it had more chance of filtering down to the children.
So we should ask ourselves, every time we hear that investment will be good for a region, what exactly that investment entails. As an extreme (and unfair) example, we could wonder whether the Chinese investors in Marlborough will try to maintain their country’s working hours and wages in the region. Were this the case, would the people who have to work in these vineyards be better off?
A lot of commentators will say that such an investment is better than people being redundant – an argument I understand but one I have very great misgivings about. For two reasons. One is the rhetoric: a job is better than no job – accept this and you open the gates to exploitation (and, incidentally, you break the absurd Free Market mantra that people are always free to leave their jobs). The second is Oscar Wilde’s point:
Just as the worst slave-owners were those who were kind to their slaves, and so prevented the horror of the system being realised by those who suffered from it, and understood by those who contemplated it, so, in the present state of things in England, the people who do most harm are the people who try to do most good.
In doing good, we bring investment to a region. In itself, it’s not a bad thing, but all investment must be regarded with open eyes and an understanding of what it might represent to the people that it affects. Something we seem ill-equipped to do.
The next time you hear someone praising investment in a region (by insiders or outsiders), just take some time to wonder who is getting the most out of that investment. After all, I remember conversations with close friends telling me that the British invested heavily in the likes of India and Kenya when they were part of the empire.