Poor. Poverty. Impoverishment. I’ve heard these words bandied about a lot recently. That last one in particular is a funny word. It sounds as though the state of being poor is a fact, that “impoverishment” is endemic to the place that is suffering from the condition. And yet, what impoverish actually means is “to take away” or “to make poor.”
It’s a word that is used often to describe countries from the old global “South,” countries like Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka. It’s the kind of classification I disagreed with even as an undergraduate, producing a 384 page honors thesis titled ‘The Dominant Ideology in International Development,’ where I argued against the idea that there were “rich” countries and “poor” ones, rather than what was the case, a trans-national capitalist class that is alive and well in every country, as were the so-called poor. There were certainly imbalances, but they were internal to each country, between the rich and the poor of that country, and they were transnational between the rich in wealthier countries and the rich in poorer nations. I refused to use those old terms, “developed,” “developing,” and “underdeveloped,” choosing instead to define the terms to more appropriately reflect our biases, as “industrially advanced” for instance.
I was reminded of that thesis recently when, during a local gathering, I met a woman who described herself as someone who worked “in poor countries.” I struggled to respond. The first thing that came to mind was whether it was really necessary to turn a friendly almost-summer afternoon into a bull fight. Can I change this person’s mind?, I asked myself. Is it worth it? Wouldn’t it be better to just shut up? (I often find myself in these situations, just for the record). But then I remembered Sara Stowell. Sara and I became friends during my first class on international politics at Bates College, a class taught by Professor Jim Richter. Sara was die-hard leftist from Vermont who had worked in El Salvador, was majoring in Rhetoric, spoke Spanish fluently and, also, helped me stage a fund-raising luncheon so I could raise enough money to go home at the end of graduation. We don’t see each other very much, in fact we recently got together after nearly seven years, at her parents’ farm in Ludlow, but Sara is often on my mind. What would Sara do/say, I often ask myself. I asked myself that question as I stood before this recent stranger that afternoon, paper plate and the ubiquitous potato salad in one hand, ear half tuned to so many babbling conversations. Well, Sara always chooses the words or action that would help change the world, however remote the possibility of that happening. I sometimes emulate her.
I turned to the lady and I said, “what countries?”
“Indonesia, Malawi,” she replied.
“Oh,” I said, giving her something of a chance, “You mean you work with poor communities in those countries?”
“Oh no, these are poor countries. Just poor countries,” she said.
Without the possibility of grace anymore, I said, “Well, that would depend on what your definition of poor might be, right? People call Sri Lanka a poor country, but when I think about its wealth of history, culture, social programs, civic life, education, healthcare, natural beauty, I am hard pressed to call it poor.”
(In case you’ve never seen Sri Lanka before, here’s a sweet video on youtube. )
Needless to say, we didn’t talk much after that. It depressed me, somewhat, that such a person, one who falls fairly into the category of a liberal democrat in the United States, who travels overseas and works with local populations, could still harbor such skewed perceptions of the world. There are days on which I believe I live in a country full of deprivation, the sort of lack which I associate with poverty. The poverty of the mind, for instance, which finds American students, at the end of high school, averaging at the bottom of the ranking among their peers worldwide, as indicated by this report by Dr. Forgione, U.S. Commissioner of Education Statistics, which is only comparing the US to other industrialized countries in the West, Europe and Asia, but not the so-called Third World, where the results would be even worse for the US.
In short, the tests showed U.S. fourth-graders performing poorly, middle school students worse. and high school students are unable to compete. By the same criteria used to say we were “average” in elementary school, “we appear to be “near the bottom” at the high school level. People have a tendency to think this picture is bleak but it doesn’t apply to their own school. Chances are, even if your school compares well in SAT scores, it will still be a lightweight on an international scale.
If we set the test scores aside and concentrate on the simple matter of education, we are clearly languishing in a state of poverty. We live in a society that values a quick buck via a reality show over a commitment to learning, where most people, given the choice, would spend their money on a new gizmo over buying a book. We live in a country where in the neighborhoods on this side of City Line Avenue, we can have nationally ranked schools of excellence, where the trophies gleam behind glass bookcases, and on the other side of City Line Avenue are neighborhoods where sending ones children to those schools comes from necessity not choice, and the only glass to be found is often on the streets outside.
I am struck by the spiritual poverty of a country where people choose to protect their own individual interest over the chance to protect a community. Where attention to physical wellbeing is reserved for the rich while the poor must simply make do or die, something I’ve written about before.
I am struck by the poverty of a country where an elderly person must languish in a home away from family and what is familiar, where visits are few and irritations many. How poverty-stricken it is to be abandoned in such a manner, where the first consideration is neither care nor gratitude but convenience?
What poverty there is in a country where the citizenry barely understands the platforms of parties for which they vote, if they vote at all. What a hideous lack there is in people who have such little interest or understanding of the globe of which our country is but one very small part. What poverty exists in classrooms where even the history of this country is taught with such a lack of complexity and depth, where the memorization of a date and a name is sufficient. How poor is a child who is graded with an A for mediocre work and rides off into the sunset to become completely disillusioned and depressed when he or she comes face to face with a world of peers who have been held to higher standards?
How utterly lacking is a nation where the people want their President to express rage and fury rather than reason, integrity and resolve. How intellectually impoverished this country is when those who are most highly educated – like this individual was – lacks the intelligence to understand that my presence at that gathering did not suddenly make me someone who thinks just like her, but rather, an individual with a personal history that might influence how I look at our common world.
I posted a link on Facebook a few days ago, about the discovery, by the United States, of rich deposits of minerals in Afghanistan. The sarcasm of the accompanying comment had to do with how wonderful it was that the U.S. military, which was ostensibly fighting a war in Afghanistan, had the time, inclination and resources to discover “huge veins of iron, copper, cobalt, gold and critical industrial metals like lithium.” Did they find them while they were, you know, digging a hole to hunker down in for the night? Did they come across these mines while looking for water? Did a local tribal elder show them the way in exchange for a bag of MREs?
The response to the post came from two sources. One, the immigrant voice, which articulated with a trace of bitterness that perhaps the search for minerals preceded the war, and the other, the American liberal, which celebrated the fact that instead of growing cocaine the impoverished country of Afghanistan could finally make an honest living. So there was that word again, impoverish.
Odd how in this case the word was correct. Afghanistan is a country that has been impoverished by a variety of groups, some their own, but others residing in White Houses (in America) and Parliament Buildings (in Moscow). America’s link to the cultivation of poppy in Afghanistan and its export out of the country have been widely documented. Here’s an excerpt from Wikipedia:
“It was alleged by the Soviets on multiple occasions that American CIA agents were helping smuggle opium out of Afghanistan, either into the West, in order to raise money for the Afghan resistance or into the Soviet Union in order to weaken it through drug addiction. According to Alfred McCoy, the CIA supported various Afghan drug lords, for instance Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and others such as Haji Ayub Afridi. In 2010, Russia accused United States of supporting the opium production in Afghanistan. Presently with resurgence of high out put production of opium and heroin in post-Taliban Afghanistan, there is an ongoing heroin addiction epidemic in Russia which is claiming 30,000 lives each year, mostly among young people. There were two and half million heroin addicts in Russia by 2009.”
It seemed so bizarre to me that anybody could imagine that any country in the world, however impoverished – in the past and now on an ongoing basis – by countries such as America, would be glad that the American military had invaded its territory, killed so many thousands of civilians – there appears to be a particular fondness for attacking wedding parties – and then announced that they had found an exploitable natural resource.
Somehow I doubt that the United States intends to leave those mines alone or that they intend an equal exchange of technological expertise for the sharing of wealth that belongs solely to Afghanistan. Somehow I feel that there is further impoverishment on the cards for Afghanistan. And, while that happens, the United States will continue on its own downward spiral of poverty. We are, after all, safely addicted to our own vices and myopia.