Walk a Mile in These Shoes

[Originally published in shorter form in the Vanuatu Daily Post’s Weekender Edition.]

Timorese GirlAttendees of this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, received an invitation from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to ‘an event you will never forget’. The event, called the Refugee Run , is a Disneyland-style re-enactment of life in a refugee camp.

I can’t speak for the guests, but the image of champagne-and-caviar billionaires spending a couple of hours scuffing their loafers with designer dust behind artfully laid out barbed wire before returning to their luxury hotels – well, that is something I won’t soon forget. No matter how hard I try.

Not that we needed any reminder of just how out of touch the majority of those living in privilege really are, but this event starkly illustrates just how great the chasm between rich and poor really is. It is an object lesson on how easy it is for even the most high-minded among us to mistakenly confuse poverty with a lack of physical wealth.

According to apologists, the Davos refugee sideshow is really an exercise in visualisation. By simulating the experience of powerlessness and intimidation most refugees feel, our captains of industry will be brought closer to them, making it easier for them to bestow their largesse on the dispossessed.

That idea isn’t utterly without merit, but I can say from experience that even a visit to a real refugee camp does very little indeed to convey the refugee experience. It’s one thing to see patience, resignation and demoralisation in the eyes of another; it’s another thing entirely to live it over a space of months, often years.

Having any expectation that one can truly encapsulate even the smallest iota of that experience in a few hours of antiseptic poverty theatre is self-deceptive to say the least. Worse, it can lead to the mistaken conclusion that the wires, the dirt and the lack of facilities are themselves the problem.

Describing poverty in terms of material conditions does disservice to those who live in it. Noted development theorist William Easterly writes:

“I think a Refugee Theme Park crosses a line that should not be crossed. Sensationalizing and dehumanizing and patronizing results in bad aid policy – if you have little respect for the dignity of individuals you are trying to help, you are not going to give THEM much say in what THEY want and need, and how you can help THEM help themselves?”

People in Vanuatu are not poor because they don’t have a Sony Playstation at home, or even because they lack electricity. A child isn’t made poor because she’s the third owner of her patched-up island dress. She only knows poverty when she learns that she’s to stay home because the family can only pay school fees for one child.

A mother learns poverty when the lack of appropriate medicine at her local hospital causes the death of her child from a simple infection.

It’s not the thing; it’s the effect of the thing.

Following a visit to Timor Leste, I wrote, “The problem of poverty isn’t the hunger, per se – most people can cope with shortages for limited periods. True poverty is a life so circumscribed and limited that even children cease to hope for something better.”

The solution to poverty is not only to improve material conditions. Such improvements sure won’t hurt, but they’re not sufficient in and of themselves. Worse, when we consider development projects in this light, we tend to make wrong decisions.

The problem with many development projects (and philosophies) I’ve come across is this: They’re predicated on the assumption that the system as it is today is what we want to replicate in developing countries. But such systems are organic, not mechanical. They must be grown, not constructed.

It is not sufficient to re-create the physical environment in which the developed world lives. That would be making the same mistake the UNHCR did in Davos; in effect, we’d be building Potemkin Prosperity, dressing a set and nothing more.

Nor is it reasonable to try. Vanuatu will never have a national power grid. It won’t ever have significant industrial output. Vanuatu is not Australia, nor will it ever be.

Don’t get me wrong. Using aid money to build out infrastructure – as we are doing with the MCA monies, for example – is a commendable and necessary thing. Likewise the extensive private sector-driven development of our telecoms sector. But as US President Obama recently stated:

“The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our gross domestic product, but on the reach of our prosperity; on our ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart — not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good.”

Opportunity. That’s the key.

Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen is one of the best-known proponents of what’s known as the capabilities approach. Simply stated, poverty should not be measured only in terms of overall economic prosperity, but in the opportunities available to society. The ability of a person to achieve according to their potential, regardless of social standing, sex or any other factor – that is the ultimate measure of wealth in any society.

Weighed on such scales, even bastions of wealth like the US, the UK and Australia can be found wanting. Intolerance, corruption, class distinction and the worst aspects of social conservatism all limit the capabilities inherent in society.

The capabilities described by Sen don’t fit neatly into a spreadsheet, nor can they be concisely enumerated in a PowerPoint slide show. They almost certainly cannot be explored or explained in this Davos Grand Guignol.

But, like good music and great art, we know them when we see them.

One of the great privileges of living and working in Vanuatu is the fact that I have known – really known – people from so many walks of life.

In other nations, society is an abstraction, a notion adrift in the midst of the millions of people who compose it. In Vanuatu, we really can know each other. We can husband prosperity as we would our gardens, because it’s all right here. Everyone and everything is within our grasp, our comprehension.

Here in Vanuatu, it really is possible to walk a mile in a poor person’s shoes. All you have to do is step outside your door.