COLUMN-A novel look at emerging market entrepreneurs-Chrystia Freeland

Thu Apr 4, 2013 2:42pm EDT
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By Chrystia Freeland

NEW YORK, April 4 (Reuters) - If you read just one book this spring to understand how the world is changing, it should be Mohsin Hamid's new novel, "How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia." The central theme of this funny and vivid work is familiar: the great shift in the global economy's center of gravity from West to East.

What makes Hamid's tale so revealing is that he gets beneath the human skin of that tectonic lurch. Asia's rise is a story of the eastward tilt of global gross domestic product, but behind those numbers are billions of individual lives that are being radically transformed. In particular, Hamid, who lives in Lahore, Pakistan, focuses on the rapid urbanization that is both a driver and a consequence of economic growth in the emerging markets.

Hamid reminds us how epic that transition is for the people swept up in it. As he writes in his novel: "You witness a passage of time that outstrips its chronological equivalent. Just as when headed into the mountains a quick shift in altitude can vault one from subtropical jungle to semi-arctic tundra, so too can a few hours on a bus from rural remoteness to urban centrality appear to span millennia."

"There is a massive movement to the cities," Hamid told me by telephone this week from Dublin. His novel chronicles a central result of this migration: the breakdown of the social and economic structures of the village and the frantic individual search to replace them with something else.

"We are seeing a growing understanding that people need to be individual entrepreneurs because the old rural networks won't take care of them anymore," Hamid told me. "In most countries across Asia, the state is still pretty weak; it can't offer you much health care or security in your old age. So people have to fend for themselves."

The result isn't filthy riches for everyone - Hamid described the invisible hand of the "ferocious" market economy as operating "with a carrot, but also a pretty big stick." The individual response to both the peril and the promise is a surge of entrepreneurship.

"People are out there as individual actors in this economy," Hamid said. "They are all little individual businesses. Most people would say, 'I work for me."'   Continued...