Monday, September 20, 2010

Inequality in Haiti

Here's a post from Carla Murphy's blog. She talks about the glaring inequalities in Haiti. As I've gotten to know various places and looked into poverty around the world, a shocking revelation is that the idea of a totally primitive, impoverished place is just a fantasy, as such places don't really exist. Every place has elites. So when we hear about basketcase countries like Haiti or Chad, it's important to remember that those places don't represent some entirely different way of organizing humanity, where everyone is living in a backwards state of abject, primitive poverty.

No, it seems to me that everywhere, from Haiti to the US to Colombia, and probably to Papua New Guinea, has poor people and wealthy people. And those wealthy people aren't just wealthy by local standards, i.e. they have a few more goats than their neighbors or something, but wealthy by any standard. If this is indeed the case, we need to stop thinking of poor countries vs. rich countries, because all countries are then a mix of rich elites and poor people, in varying proportions. Obviously certain countries have a larger percentage of their populace in poverty than others, but it's good to recognize that the societies of Europe or the US are only different from countries in Africa or the Caribbean in degree of poverty, and not in their very nature.

This realization allows us to overcome the fiction that poverty in the US or even middle-income countries like Brazil or South Africa is inherently "better" than poverty in other countries. In the 21st century, when resources are abundant and the entire world is opening new horizons of possibility, poverty everywhere is more a question of lack of access to resources than lack of resources themselves. A ghetto-dweller in Chicago, a farmer in the Congo, a street vendor in Vietnam, all are surrounded by resources, and if they go hungry, which they do more often than they rightly should, it is simply because they lack the money and the power to obtain these resources. Likewise, the poor of Chicago or Ghana often have access to certain amenities like motorized vehicles or televisions, which I suppose is a good thing, but hunger persists in the world despite the increased availability of consumer goods. Certain countries like the US, France, or Cuba have programs to mitigate or eliminate hunger and poverty more or less successfully, and these are to be commended and their example followed. But I want people to be clear that poverty in a "rich" country is not inherently more comfortable than poverty in a "poor" country, and efforts to argue otherwise are silly. How do we compare the lower income of a Beninois farmer to the high risk of violent death of a poor young man from Chicago? Is a Colombian peasant better off than a Malawian because he has a longer lifespan, or does the constant risk of massacres and displacement from his land make the Colombian worse off? Instead of asking these stupid and unresolvable questions, I prefer to acknowledge that being poor is a bum deal wherever you are, and to work towards creating a dignified society without poverty.

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