Cows, George Clooney, and South Sudan

 George Clooney discusses corruption in South Sudan

Business has a way of sneaking into politics in every corner of the world. When celebrities get involved, they can raise awareness and money with appeals that can be understood by those in the United States--the terrible danger and atrocities described by George Clooney are an example.

But some values are more difficult to understand. Cows as currency--and as a way of relating on a social basis--is one aspect of South Sudan that may be difficult to grasp. In South Sudan, cows function as both currency and credit cards, so cows are an integral part of a majority of business transactions.

Cows as currency in South Sudan...and the conflict it produces

The United States was instrumental in setting up South Sudan as a political entity...but the current administration feels that maintaining support for the entity is too expensive. But continued support is needed--primarily to contain the corruption inflicted by rustlers that steal cows and rob individuals of "their whole life." No amount of cash can compensate--though it is difficult for us in the USA to understand how that can be possible.  

In international trade transactions, it is important to understand what is valued by cultures that are very different from one's own. Protecting and funding a farm animal might be far less costly in terms of dollar expenditures, but may produce greater value. So investing with understanding can be more cost-effective than just throwing money at a problem when cultural understanding is lacking. According to the article, 85 cows cost only $14,000--but are very valuable in terms of status, worth and security. 

Source: "Episode 805: War and Peace and Cows," by Gregory Warner, with Noel King, NPR: Planet Money, November 15, 2017. [Transcript]

Follow up

  • What can this story teach a businessperson regarding negotiation and pricing?
  • What parts of this story cannot be easily understood by those of us living in the United States?