Thursday, August 7, 2014

Little America

Last week I was in San Diego for a conference.  When the conference ended I went to San Francisco for a few days to visit my friend Brian.  I had never been to San Fran before, so while my first priority was visiting Brian and his family whom I hadn’t seen in over a year, a close second was checking out the city.  One of our excursions took us to Chinatown, which is the largest Chinatown outside of Asia, and the oldest in North America.  The funny thing about all that stuff being sold in Chinatown… is that it is all made in India!  I took great pleasure in picking up all the little trinkets, turning them over, anticipating a “Made in China” tag, only to be shocked upon reading, “Made in India” instead.  What IS the world coming to?

Somewhere between the fortune cookie factories, the foot reflexology massage advertisements and the Indian made chopsticks, I was reminded of a conversation I had with some friends about a similar phenomenon... Little America.

Believe it or not, Africa is not typically known for being culinarily sophisticated or diverse, but there is evidence to the contrary.  There are at least three established Chinatowns on the continent, in Madagascar, Mauritius and South Africa; Mombasa, Kenya hosts a huge annual Oktoberfest; and Johannesburg has a Little Italy.   One afternoon I was sitting in the lounge at Joburg Airport with some recently acquired single serving friends discussing these types of ethnically-centered communities.  A Brit made the comment (in the way only a Brit could say it), “I don’t understand, why aren’t there any Little Americas?”  To which I responded (as only an American could), “Of course there are!  In fact there are several thousand of them.”  After a belated pause for effect and the expected exchange of confused glances I continued, “And you have all been there, likely many times.  It is called McDonald’s!”

The mention of McDonald’s sent the conversation off on a completely different tangent, one in which only a tourism professor could dominate, and so I did.  My companions began debating the merits of McDonald’s, the menus selected according to geographical region and questioned why some countries have a never-ending supply of McDonald’s, while other areas, particularly the large majority of Africa were McDonald’s-free zones.  Even the Brit admitted, “The last four months in Zimbabwe have been the longest of my life.  I would have killed for a Big Mac.”  There are only five African countries with McDonald’s restaurants: Morocco, Egypt, South Africa, Mauritius and Reunion Island.  The other 49 countries are sans-Mickey-D’s.  In case you are curious as to why McDonald’s has not infiltrated the continent there is a simple answer: The Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention.

In 1999 Thomas Friedman wrote the book The Lexus and the Olive Tree in which he stated, “No two countries that both had McDonald’s had fought a war against each other since each got its McDonald’s.”  In the Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention chapter, Friedman goes on to explain that McDonald’s will only enter a country that has reached a certain level of economic development, one which supports a middle class that can patronize a McDonald’s establishment.  Once a country has that kind of financial security it becomes a “McDonald’s country,” one which is stable enough not to want to pursue potentially destructive actions, such as wars.

In all fairness, The Golden Arches Theory is not absolute.  In fact, shortly after the book was published NATO bombed Yugoslavia.  The 2006 war between Israel and Lebanon and the current crisis with Russia and Ukraine are other examples which make the theory flawed.  But at the same time, there are countries which could be categorized as possible “McDonald’s countries” which haven’t made the cut.  Namibia and Botswana haven’t been in wars with anyone since independence, 24 years and 48 years, respectively.

Trust me, I am NOT advocating the spread of McDonald’s, particularly into Africa.  I would much rather see these countries develop their own businesses outside of the big brand giants.  But I have to admit, there is nothing more challenging than teaching in Botswana and saying to your class of 100+ students, “Ok, you know how McDonald’s does XYZ?”  You look into the crowd of faces and realize everyone is staring back at you completely clueless as to what you are talking about.  “No, no most definitely do not know how McDonald’s does XYZ, or anything for that matter.  Never mind, give me a second, I can find another example for you.”  At some point in your academic career you think you are pretty well versed in your field.  And then you get a little reality check like this one and remember that learning should never stop.

Here is a map of countries with and without McDonald’s, along with some other interesting facts.  It should be noted there is a mistake on this map: the large red spot in northwest (top left side) Africa is Algeria which does NOT have a McDonald’s.  Instead that should be blue and there should be a red area NEXT to it (on the left) where Morocco lies.  Minor detail, unless of course you are Moroccan or Algerian:

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