Perceptions of Development
Development brings to mind images of skyscrapers and cars. Developed countries have shopping malls and food courts. Countries which have ‘developed’ most recently pass down tales from older generations about what has changed. Evidence of this change is everywhere when one walks through laneways in Tokyo or Beijing. Old narrow streets have given way to wide avenues capable of handling large volumes of traffic. Low-rise buildings made of brick have given way to high-rise ones comprised of steel and concrete. Space is used for business. Shelves are full of goods.
The developing world, on the other hand, is full of flies. At least it is according to my mother. Flies are everywhere. So are children. And the flies are all over the children. My mother’s image of fly-covered children comes primarily from the television coverage of the famine in Ethiopia in the 1980’s. The BBC’s Jonathan Dimbleby’s coverage of the first Ethiopian famine in the early 1970’s reminds one of where this image of Africa and the developing world comes from. Famine is a serious problem that prevents people from leading long, healthy and creative lives.
Optimism for Africa’s future among Canadians is uncommon. The media does not portray a bright future for Ethiopia’s children. The word most commonly associated with Ethiopia is famine. Yet there is no famine in Addis Ababa. Addis Ababa is known as the diplomatic capital of Africa. The capital is also known to be very different than the rest of the country. At the height of Ethiopia’s famine crisis life in Addis Ababa continued normally, according to Robert Kaplan’s Famine Wars. It was Ethiopia’s rural population which suffered the most during Ethiopia’s famine years. And it is the rural population in arid parts of the country which continues to be disadvantaged by drought.
‘Disadvantaged’ is a relative term. Someone or something is offered less opportunity than someone else. ‘Disadvantaged’ groups are often reported in the media: ethnic minorities, asylum seekers, and women. Uighurs in Xinjiang are disadvantaged. The Afar in Ethiopia are disadvantaged. Asylum seekers in Australia are disadvantaged (and often incarcerated). They are shunned in society for not having proper language skills or enough familiarity with local customs. Women in many societies are not afforded the same opportunities for education and employment and are ear-marked for certain professions, if they are allowed to work at all. Children are deprived of childhood. They are disadvantaged by not having access to education and clean facilities. They may not have access to clean water. That is real disadvantage. Shacks may provide a supportive home environment for those living there, but the chances are slim that its inhabitants have access to high speed internet. So the people living there will be disadvantaged in business relative to their urban counterparts. The man sitting in the street may be disadvantaged by his lack of pension or social security. People planting their fields by hand may be lacking modern agricultural technology and be disadvantaged relative to farmers in Europe.
If disadvantaged is a relative term, then poverty is an absolute one. Disadvantaged infers that there is someone else out there who is advantaged. There are children in the world with access to clean water, and they have an advantage over children without it. There are people with modern homes and access to high speed internet that will have an information advantage over those without it. Elderly people with good pensions will have an advantage over those with none. Farmers with access to modern technology will be more efficient than those who manage their farms by hand.
Poverty implies that an individual cannot meet the basic necessities of life. Earning a dollar a day when that dollar can buy one food and shelter is different from earning a dollar a day when five dollars is required to pay for food and shelter. Poverty is not just a social status. If an individual cannot afford food and shelter, that individual is not just poor relative to others. That person’s survival is in jeopardy.
Education can be a way out of poverty. Education empowers individuals not just to break the cycle of poverty, but to recognise disadvantage in society, and to create a more equitable future. The second of the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals is to achieve universal primary education by 2015. Achieving universal primary education will not lead to skyscrapers and traffic jams, but will hopefully lead to longer and more creative lives for people in the developing world.