A Question I Wrestle With At Night

As someone who has long been interested in ways to address the massive global disparity in economic wellbeing – nearly 1 billion people live onless than $1.90 a day, adjusted for purchasing power – I’ve struggled with the question of how to do this while avoiding the historical tendency of Westerners to use alleged afflictions as an excuse to control others.

This tendency is a favorite jab by aid critics: the most notable critic of development aid, economist Bill Easterly, titled his most famous book The White Man’s Burden. It’s a worry worth thinking about, seeing as some forms of aid today, notably food aid,  sometimes do advantage rich countries at the expense of poor ones.

There are a number of facets to this problem. For now, I want to deal with the micro-level question of whether and how poverty (which is actually a pretty difficult term to define) is an affliction.

Now on some level questioning whether poverty is bad (and how bad) may sound silly, and the issue is not poverty exactly: it’s how addressing poverty changes and to some degree may destroy a culture with many positive things to offer.  Many of the pictures charities give us in the West are focused on devastation: the starvation, the grueling labor necessary to lift one’s fortunes, the struggle with illness. When I have stayed in developing countries, I’ve been struck by the pictures that don’t get through: the festive camaraderie of a first birthday, children playing football outside (something increasingly rare in developed countries), the bustling markets filled with fresh fruits, veggies, and street food. 

Beyond that, there’s simply the fact that the culture in Ghana or Peru, especially the poorer parts that I’m familiar with, is vitally different from that in the United States. Though I may be biased, I think there’s more diversity of culture in the Global South than in higher-income countries, even considering richer Asian countries. Part of this is just the fact that development hastens globalization and also tends to involve Westernization, but it also speaks to a more inherent issue in development: the material capabilities you rely on shape what you do – they shape your culture. There’s no way alleviating poverty will happen without some loss of culture, a loss that may include far more than just aesthetic pleasures (though to be clear, it comes with gains as well).

Now I’m not one to say that we should let people suffer simply in order to preserve some culture. It seems paternalistic and fetishistic to say we will let someone be mired in poverty because of how cute their life is. The question for me is: are people really suffering, how badly, and will they genuinely be better off if Ghana becomes more like the U.S.? The question is not a moot one: if you came here (I did not, but I imagine some do) expecting to see people moaning in pain left and right in the streets like the way Uganda is portrayed in the Book of Mormon you would be surprised. My impression is that you see more happy faces here than on the streets of New York (perhaps not than San Francisco though).

Enough of how great things are here, though: there is suffering, but it’s suffering that’s nowhere near as constant and visible as we’re often led to believe it is. Surveys do show that poverty takes a dramatic toll on how happy people are with their lives. Were this in the context of a single country, you might think it was just a question of envy and despair at rich neighbors. These studies, though, compare different countries, and indeed poverty seems to hurt (after a certain level of wealth, though, money seems to stop mattering much).

So how does this happen even while you don’t see people so miserable when they walk around? Are people just hiding it? That actually may be part of it, but I don’t think it’s the key explanation. In fact, the issue seems to be that while poverty does not make people sad minute to minute, it leads to far more frequent and stressful obstacles (one aspect of this is described in Portfolios of the Poor).

A common illness can be crippling and impossible to treat with the money one has. A child is far more likely to die. The weather takes a regular toll on one’s business.

In the context of Ghana, I am a very rich man but I see bits and pieces of this – even in the second-biggest city in the country, the power and water are very inconsistent. In more rural areas, it’s often more common than not that there is no power. Built structures are much more affected by the weather.

So while most of the time I don’t notice the difference – while sitting at my computer under a fan I don’t constantly think “I’m in a developing country!” – there are frequent moments of stress, moments that are far more common and intense for people who are not rich here.

These occasionally stressful events do not just affect the moments where they happen. As Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir explain in their book Scarcity, moments like this frame the way you live. You have to constantly act around the lack of available water by using your water very strategically when it’s available, making interactions around water just a tad more stressful than they would be if it were available. These shifts in framing have profound effects.

People here want to not get malaria. They want their children to go to school more. They want more productive crops. As I’ll flesh out more in a future post, I think it’s best for those from other countries to support these basic capabilities and avoid more substantial cultural change in the hopes that we can end poverty without making the world too homogeneous.

This probably makes poverty within a rich country more similar to poverty in a poor country than we might otherwise think. The poorer members of rich countries face a wide variety of additional constraints that can create different conditions of scarcity.  That’s not to say that global poverty isn’t still particularly severe – no question, it is – but it’s not severe in the ways we often think it is.


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