Seeing the poverty of the world can put your own plights in a new light.
In the jungle in Mexico recently I met a security guard who was working for a museum of ethnic craft. He was sitting beneath a tree with sprawling branches and I decided to join him to take advantage of the shade. I learnt that he made four dollars a day.
When his wages didn’t cover the costs for food he would put some bottles in the river to catch small fish. Other nights he borrowed a shot gun from his boss and headed off for a distant hill in the jungle – there he laid out bait and waited for a wild goat to turn up.
“Sometimes the goat doesn’t come,” he sighed, “And I have to return the next night and the next.”
He wasn’t the poorest person I’ve met in Mexico but it put my financial troubles into perspective. Most of the time our money problems are less about survival than maintaining the standard of living to which we’re accustomed. For some of us it would represent real hard times if we had to share a bedroom with other people. For many millions of people in the world it would be a luxury not to share their bed with half their family.
Recently when my import/export business failed miserably I had to leave 25 kilos of stock with a dreamy old man whom I’d met by chance. I took the stuff to his house, fretting all the time that perhaps I’d never see the stock again.
I got off the bus and found that he lived with his wife in a tiny house about twenty meters from the freeway. I doubt I could have withstood the thunder of the passing traffic for more than twenty minutes, let alone live there.
As I see it, the main difference between poor people and rich people is that the poor have to put up with a lot more. When I try to sell incense on the street and get depressed after a few rejections, I can afford to give up and do something else instead. The kids here who walk the streets selling chewing gum have no choice to go on no matter how many times they’re chased away and humiliated.
When I used to travel without money I imagined I was poor. But in truth, when I stood next to a homeless Indian, we were separated by worlds; whereas I had an education, he couldn’t read or write; whereas I was brought up in the West and had white skin, he had no connections with wealth; and most importantly, I had a passport that enabled me to travel to places where money would be made – he would never leave the borders of his own country.
So my wealth as a European wasn’t so much defined by the number of coins in my pocket but by the invisible connections I had to the Great Money River of the West. Tourists would generally trust one of their own before a native, I still had family who would help me out in case of emergency and, as a last resort, my embassy might throw me on a plane back to England.
The strangest thing of is why we should be so rich anyway. The West largely grew rich on the back of its empires but colonies are a thing of the past, no? Well, though it’s become unfashionable to send soldiers into a country to rob it blind, the West continues to prosper whilst the poor countries stay poor – what are we to think, that countries like India, Malawi and Guatemala are just plain dumb? That they just can’t get it together to make a buck?
Okay, most poor countries have suffered through war or internal conflicts but it’s no coincidence that the arms manufacturers and traders are largely based in the West.
The recent wave of protests against global capitalism indicate that more and more people believe that the empires never really collapsed. The soldiers have been replaced by the multi-national companies. In the 18th century the slave traders of Europe set up puppet African kings to do the dirty work of hunting for humans, whom they’d stuff into ships and sell at great profit in the New World. Today, the corrupt regimes of the world are mostly on the pay roll of the multi-nationals who are given a free hand to exploit cheap labor and materials.
Many of the consumer goods enjoyed by the Western public are manufactured in poor countries where the manufacturers aren’t encumbered by our legislature. They don’t have to worry about details such as a fair wage, health insurance or humane working conditions. A political commentator once asked the chairman of a company with factories in Mexico if he spoke any Spanish. A little, was the reply. He was then asked:
“Okay, so how do you say ‘Once you get your arm out of that machine you’re fired’?”
And what do the poor have to say about all this? Well, quite a lot, actually, but chance are that you’ll never hear them. CNN doesn’t interview many indigenous people whose children recently died of mercury poisoning. It’s just too run of the mill, not spectacular enough.
So maybe I’m running off at the mouth. It’s all been said before but sometimes it doesn’t hurt to put things in a little perspective. Thousands died in the awful attacks on America of 9/11. But every year millions children die across the world as a result of inadequate nutrition and healthcare. The only reason that it doesn’t make the headlines every day is that their deaths are quite unspectacular.
This world could be such a paradise and yet it’s a hell for so many. The wealth of the richest 358 people in the world equals that of 2.5 billion of the poorest.
And so what should we do about it? I haven’t got the faintest idea.