Monday, 1 February 2010

Haves and Havenots

A couple of days ago, I was chatting to someone about her work in South Africa. I cannot name her or describe her work in detail because my comment could potentially jeopardise (albeit highly unlikely) the relations she needs to maintain to do the great work she is doing.

Anyway, she described how difficult it would be to organise accommodation amongst the people in S. Africa living in severe deprivation that she works with, so she tends to stay with wealthy people while she is there. This of course sits uncomfortably with her because she is in effect receiving the privileges those she works with could never attain. She described the extreme contrast in the two existences (where she stays and those she works with) and a story of how much resentment is felt when tribal leaders lay legitimate land claims that in effect mean that the wealthy folk have to give up some of their vast land ownership to the people huddled closely together in appalling living conditions.

It set me off thinking.....

Inequality is everywhere, always has been, almost definitely always will be. The ideals of communism didn't prevent the elite from existing. (Of course we have inequality in Britain, it's just the 'have nots' are not usually starving, can attain health care, receive an education and have sanitation). It did made me wonder and I appreciate I am totally tainted by my cultural stance, how people can live in blatant luxury so closely alongside such obvious debilitating deprivation. My point being, what mindset can maintain a luxurious lifestyle without feeling terrible guilt? And I guess its a mindset that believes those living in deprivation simply do not deserve the same rights or equal opportunities or how else could a person live with themself? And of course the converse, that for some reason they are unquestionably worthy of a better life - as after all they have 'earned' it. It's just a suspicion, I have no proof. So on the one hand, laws have changed, people are seen to say the right things etc but on the other, the blatant inequality thrives.

And then, it reminded me of an activity I have put in one of my books for kids (Headlines Poverty) about global inequality. It feels a bit like Blue Peteragain because here's one I made earlier.

Imagine this.....

Imagine a room about the size of a classroom with 30 people in it (about the number of people in a class). One quarter of the room has plenty of furniture (including a plush sofa), a carpet, toys, books, games, a computer and a television. This quarter is very comfortable, warm, nicely decorated with pictures on the wall. The rest of the room, however, is shabby and draughty and has nothing in it except a few bowls and cups.

In the comfortable corner there are four people sitting at a table eating a huge roast dinner. They are drinking water with their meal. They got the water from a tap in the kitchen area of their corner of the room. They have a pudding too and all agree it’s probably too much to eat. In fact, they don’t manage to eat it all and end up scraping a fair amount into the bin. Everyone at the table looks healthy and happy and they are sitting chatting about what they are going to watch on television, which books they like reading and which games they might play.

Everyone else in the room is watching them from the shabby part of the room. They have not eaten since yesterday and will be lucky if they find some food at all today. They are drinking water, however, but they could not use the tap in the room. They had to bring their water from a well about half a mile away using a heavy container. The water is cloudy. Everyone looks extremely thin and several of the children look really ill. People look as if they are suffering.

In the book, I use questions to guide the children's thinking in exploring this metaphor. Would those in the affluent corner automatically help the others? Might it not depend entirely on how they viewed them? Might those in the deprived corner - because of their situation and having so few needs met - behave in a way that caused the 'wealthy' to feel some fear? or perhaps there would be fear just because these people seemed so different. Might those eating well, be too greedy to hand anything over? And is simply handing food over continuously the, it's ultimately about helping people to help themselves but before that can happen, there has to be the political will to help in the first place. I suspect that can only start to happen when attitudes towards those that are in effect oppressed by circumstance, are changed and all people are genuinely seen as having equal rights. There I go again, skipping through hippy cloud cuckoo land!


  1. Watching the India season on Channel 4 recently, I think one of the things that happens with the wealthy/deprived divide is that the wealthy can develop a mentality where they shut their minds off to the poverty and need around them because to open their minds to it is too overwhelming (and as you say, they can do little to really really help). A protective thing. It is relatable to. Like when you visit a place that is full of children begging - initially it hurts to see them and I give them money...and then I grow "hard" and stop looking at them and stop giving them money because it is too painful to keep thinking about their predicament and I can't help them all or really help them much at all. I think if you are "the wealthy" actually living alongside this kind of poverty, the same kind of "protection" of yourself probably happens. Of course, this is only one aspect of the whole thing.

  2. Any help needs to come from governments and large agencies. But it seems our need to shut our minds extends to the ballot box. There are precious few votes in overseas aid.

    However, I read recently that 95% of charitable giving goes to alleviating human misery. 5% goes to animals of which half is given to charities looking after pets. I honestly don't know how much goes to environmental charities but I'd like to extend the metaphor further.

    If the building in which the rich and poor people live starts to collapse, perhaps because someone has been taking tiles off the roof to build a private swimming pool, who should sort out the repairs? Let's suppose that so far tiles have only been taken from the poor half of the roof - should the comfortable four act now to stop it or continue to enjoy life while they can?

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. don't know about making children think - this made me think and I do think that normal people in the affluent corner could not sit and stuff themselves knowing that starving people were watching them. However, may of the rich just insulate themselves from so much - as witnessed by the gated communities in the rich part of Los Angeles; guarded entrances and if you want to visit someone living there the person is telephoned by the guard to make sure you are known. Over the other side of the road are often the neighbourhoods where riots have taken place.

  5. In every city there are people living rough and sleeping on the streets. Do we care ? No we don't. We will however, throw a bit of cash in a charity box to ease our consciences. As to giving direct aid or assistance the will isn't there, we dont want to get involved on a personal level as it will interfere with our own lives and what would our friends relatives think about us?

    A few years ago I was in Bristol there was a man lying full length across the pavement. People were stepping over him, others were stepping into the road to avoid him. A friend & I picked him up got him to his feet ascertained that he was only drunk & took him into a church where he could sleep it off in safety.

    If we genuinely want to live in a better world then it is essential to get personally involved and improve the lives of others, let each do what you can.

  6. It's a situation I found myself in when I lived in Thailand and it's something that I really struggled with!! I lived in luxury compared to the people I worked with but I did what I could when I could. I didn't close my eyes to it...I worked hard to help them help doesn't have to start with government (and very rarely does!)'s too easy to say 'Well, there is no point in me doing anything till there is a systematic change'. One leads to the other and real change usually comes from grass roots level!!

    It took a long time before I stopped feeling guilty for living in a nice house etc. What it did do was gave me a bigger appreciation of what I had and better understanding of what's important....and I mean really important!

    I still work with the same Thai communities, communicating and giving ideas...I think I probably always will. I agree with A Herson's View...if we each did what we could the world would be a better place!!

    Ooohh I could talk about this topic for hours.....

    C x

  7. I've just returned from a Caribbean cruise and saw first hand the differences - us in luxury on a cruise ship and people living in shanty houses. It's so sad :(

  8. Misery is relative, I think. Someone might live in a hut without running water, but I've never seen that in and of itself making someone less happy. How much 'misery' is projected from those with different circumstances?

    Health issues (food, medical, etc) is probably an instance in which happiness is directly affected though.
    How much help to the 'have nots' is enough?
    It all seems to be a continuum to me, if everyone has every medication and procedure that is scientifically possible, society can't afford it as a whole, shortages occur etc.
    But on the other hand, if the only medication and procedures available are an aspirin pill and a glass of water, many people die.

    Giving away too much food is unsustainable as the population of those to be helped increases, starvation is the alternative if not enough food is given.

    I like to help those that want to help themselves, but I don't like the government or others forcing my hand. Probably because I'm an individualist.

  9. I am not issuing individual comments today because I would go on forever and ever - pronpted by your interesting points.

    I read a lot of reports and books before I wrote my poverty book.

    I will say that studies that have been done about happiness have proven that there is a threashold of 'poverty' below which does actually reduce people's happiness significantly and many worldwide are below that threashold. The study also showed that above that threashold happiness did not increase with increased wealth. There is much of the world with more wealth than they need to be happy and healthy...a little re-distribution has been argued for by many.

    I also know that addressing global poverty is incredibly complex, but all reports say it's about using resources to help people to help themselves. For example, it can be appropriate to send food for the relief of acute starvation but it could never be a long term solution. The long term solution would be about education, tools, seeds and governments with the best interests of its people at its core......

    I spoke with a colleague that works in 15 of Africa's countries and her charity does exactly that - helps people to help themselves. For example, getting people to chip in to a 'revolving fund' that people could borrow from the start businesses. The other thing she said was that if you ask children (that regularly get just one meal a day) what they want most. Their answer is always, 'education'. That's because they regularly see people launch themselves into a better existence after they have been educated.

    Oh I too, could go on...and on...

  10. The whole issue makes me thing about the line in the 80s band 'Housemartin's song', 'Flag Day'

    'Too many Florence Nightingales, not enough Robin Hoods'...happy to throw money at a bad situation to patch it up, but not go out and actually change the situation...actively.

    Sort of!

  11. So many issues here. Education is a vital resource that is underexploited in the fight on poverty.

    But on the positive side, the person who invented the idea of microcredit got a Nobel prize? Yeah!

  12. Education has to be the answer. It is the doorway out of poverty.
    We have to be responsible for our fellow man and help wherever and whenver we can because there but for the grace of God, etc. etc.
    giving a little can change a lot.
    Every day we have opportunities to change people's lives. Sometimes we pretend we don't see them.

  13. I know we've already done religion but I remember being surprised at the complacency I found in India. I was told that people believed they had brought their poverty on themselves through their actions in a previous life. The best thing they could do about their situation was to accept it wihout complaint so they would be rewarded with a better deal in the next life.

    And, now I've re-opened that can of worms, what about the whole condom/abstension thing?

    I'm not saying religion is all bad but these are two examples of dogma created to keep people down. And created by people no longer around to see the consequences of their actions. Because it's religion and not politics you can't engage in a reasoned debate. Worse, you have to show the kind of respect you wouldn't dream of extending to any other kind of totalitarianism.

  14. I know it seems unlikely but the part of France I live in has a lot of poverty - you see little old people living in the most appalling conditions - broken windows, no inside water - someone told me they knew of someone who waited for it to rain so they could stand outside with a sponge and bucket to wash themselves.

    So it's on Europe's doorstep as well

  15. My brother-in-law lived in Bagneaux in Paris in the late 1990s, it was pretty grim, very La Heine. Sadly it's all around us, even in pretty little Norwich...

  16. Inequality is very difficult issue, but poverty is simpler - there is no need or justification for it.

    Take a moment to read this post I wrote about a very famous thought experiment on fairness- I promise it is interesting. Or at least I think so!


I LOVE comments......