Is it Better to be Poor in a Poor Country?

ImageLet’s face it – it sucks to be poor anywhere. But I think a lot about relative poverty.

Very frequently here in Uganda, people will ask me to “take them to America.” I know the vision in their minds. They will step off the airplane and someone will hand them a bag of money, whisk them away in their limo to their big house in Beverly Hills, and tell them where to show up for their first day of work at their powerful, high-paying job.

Most of these people who come up to me (and every other mzungu) are unemployed, uneducated young men who are wanting to escape their poverty here. Would their situation be better as poor, uneducated, young black men in America, where around one in nine young black men are in prison? Or would it be worse?

Maybe it would be better. Many immigrants might not jump straight into the “good life,” but they are able to make just enough to survive and send some money back to their family. Then they have children who are American citizens, who make it through the public school system, possibly college, and really do make that jump into the middle class. It’s the American Dream.

Is Poverty Relative?

A poor person in Uganda probably has a vast family network for help and support. You can buy a minimal amount of food for very little money, and you can live as a squatter on land that isn’t yours in a structure that would never pass code in a western nation. Not a great reality, but you are surviving and you are probably surrounded by a lot of other people who are struggling the same way you are. Your baseline for comparison isn’t so far off from your own reality.

On the other hand, this is the kind of poverty that can kill you. Many poor nations don’t have the social safety nets in terms of health care and other services, and without access to good education, it is very hard to move up the ladder.

In the United States, a poor person is daily confronted by the signs of wealth around them, so they might feel poorer by comparison. When my wife and I were serving as Americorps volunteers in Alaska, our friends were as broke as we were, so we all went to the food bank together and found free things to do on our time off. It was much harder when we moved to Boulder, Colorado, after that, still broke from our time as volunteers, but now surrounded by extreme wealth.

Family networks in wealthier nations are also often not as strong or as extensive, so you are much more on your own to “make it or break it.” In some places you can get thrown in jail for panhandling or sleeping in the park under a tarp. You certainly can’t set up a shack somewhere and live in it for any length of time. Overall, your options are much more limited. You might also be living in a place where it gets below freezing at night and, if you are homeless, this situation probably creates your highest risk of “death by poverty.”

On the bright side, your kids are probably in school for free, although they are feeling a lot of peer pressure to dress better and have nice things that you can’t afford to buy them. There are also free services available to keep you alive if you get seriously ill, need drug treatment, or if you become temporarily homeless through the loss of a job. We also have unemployment benefits and welfare that, ideally, are designed to help people get through a bumpy stretch of time. Many who are in the country illegally, though, are afraid to access these services.

What Do You Think?

Here’s what I guess it boils down to. If I could figure out a way to get one of these young men a visa to the United States, would I be doing him a favor?

This is what the comments section is for. Let us know what you think.

Mark D. Jordahl – Kampala


Enhanced by Zemanta

About Mark D. Jordahl

Mark Jordahl is a writer, trip leader and naturalist who has lived much of the last 7 years in Uganda and currently calls Colorado home.
This entry was posted in Musings, Poverty, Society and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Is it Better to be Poor in a Poor Country?

  1. WOW–me too. The questions are powerful!

    I live in a village in Central America along with indigenous folks and Ladios (indigenous folks who dress like western folks–some with mixed Euroblood). The major work around my prosperous village is related to coffee picking, working in viveros (flowers for export farms) and commuting daily to larger towns for tourist related work in restaurants, hotels, etc…not very exciting. The LARGEST source of National income in my country is ¨remittances¨ from family members working in the U.S.A. (most illegals who are now feeling the crunch with the ¨teaparty¨ Republicanos who hired them in the first place to do domestic and factory work nobody else would do)…odd how ¨things¨ turn out…anyway, remittances are more than 20% annually less than before the economic crisis in the U.S. plus ¨illegals¨ are being deported, after a nasty stint in jail holding/processing for deportation. The deportees arrive at the local airport IN CHAINS! Then they are released by the U.S. Federales on the tarmac–quite a unhappy site for all to see (often featured in color on front pages of the press)–so, there you have it, not a very good picture even if some still fatasize about Beverly Hills, movie star lovers and high paying jobs.

    Around here there are many opportunities. Yes, there are and people don´t really ¨see them¨ very well–before retirement I was a ¨product development¨ person for a importing (to U.S.) company–in the Fashion Business. Everyday I see around me fabulous opportunities to restyle abundant materials into wonderful, and brand new, fashions for people/homes–all that ever really needs to be done around here is a person, sometimes me, to share the knowledge and skills of how retail/wholesale and MARKETING WORK–these professions ¨skills¨ are a lot more detailed than most would think them to be BUT for the clever and industrous and WILLING, it´s a dream come true when cottage industry merchandise, fabricated from inexpensive raw materials and inexpensive work forces delivers BIG (as in markuped rewards)–you see, it´s in the way that we ¨see things¨ that makes the world ¨be things¨–sometimes folks are standing too close to the rainbow and need to step back a little and pay attention–beats waiting for a Visa to the U.S.A. anyday!

    • Mark D. Jordahl says:

      Great examples, Len! I have definitely found the same situation here – there are incredible products, but many people here don’t have the experience of accessing international markets, and don’t necessarily know what people abroad might want. My wife and her mother started an organization here in Uganda called BeadforLife ( They took a product(beads from recycled paper) that was already being made by a few women locally and brought them to the international market. They now export tens of thousands of jewelry items every month, and they are tracking over 90 other groups that are now exporting similar beads.

      I do think that if people are able to find/develop the right opportunity in their own country, they are likely to be happier for a number of reasons. It always makes me happy when I meet Ugandans who lived in the States for a while and chose to come back here because they just really didn’t like it that much in the US. Sometimes it was because they missed family, sometimes it was because they realized they could create a great business here with much less money than they could in the US, sometimes it was just too damn cold where they ended up. The difference for them, of course, is that they were not in poverty when they left here, nor were they likely to end up in poverty when they returned.

      I think often the best contribution that expats can make in a developing country is exactly what you seem to be doing – helping locals figure out how to tap markets (both local and international) for their products.

      Thanks for sharing your experience!

  2. Elisabeth says:

    A very thoughtful post and a very thoughtful response from Leonardo. I don’t think it would be of great benefit to people to be whisked across to the UK. They would end up in grotty accommodation in quite threatening neighbourhoods, often being treated discourteously or even threateningly by other poor people who resent them being there. Uganda is, potentially, a wonderful country and really needs its people to help make it that way. I agree, though, that it is the safety net within western society which is one of its merits, though that safety net is shrinking all the time in the current economic climate.

  3. I often suggest to the eager wisher to go to the U.S. that they ought simply stop, face the fact that business can be done here (with far less hang-ups and government controls)–there is a huge market of ladies selling veggies in the street from baskets–whatever is in season is front and center–these ¨merchants¨ do very well (and the bargain too and one must often indulge in tempertantrums to get the ¨real¨ retail price), have a certain ¨customer base¨ and don´t ever seem to be rocked by market swings–often I encourage my housekeeper to sell more of a variety of things (than she and her daughters currently sell from their home–corn tortillas, simple baked bread)–she has develped some very interesting, yet basic, cooking skills while working with me these past years and I KNOW the locals would love the food (to go) from their home–yet she feels somewhat apprehensive to try the unknown–I will quietly continue to push her because my recipe for ripe plantains (made sorta like lasagna with layered plantains instead of pasta Puerto Rica style) is a wild sensation with everyone here–the plantains are prepared only as fried sidedish here–a think I must push her a little harder–inspiration sometimes needs a enforcer in conservative environments.

    Good for your wife and associates–that´s exactly what I was speaking about–I was in the Fashion Accessories business for many of my years before retirement–the jewelry business can be wonderful with creative beeds and findings!


  4. Mustafa says:

    In India the poor had fair support from family and social networks. Poor Indians aspire jobs in oil rich middle east. India has 28 states carved out of different cultures and languages. Poor Indians in middle east are dominated by people from the southern state of Kerala and few eastern states. These groups have managed to create social support networks successfully in the uncertain work-culture of middle east. Amongst the trading class there is a similar network of Sindhis and Gujuratis. Expats Indians from other states feel socially less secure in middle east and most often struggle due to necessity or return back unable to manage isolation.

    Post 2000 there is new scenario in India ushered by the economic boom. When the focus is on climbing up the ladder and increased consumption the logic of lending and charity does not make sense. The support money in the family network is now chasing the better car,bike,TV or brand. The social network is completely collapsing.

    Being poor in a country in transition where neither the government nor the family/society can provide safety net is terrible.

    Mark “beadforlife” is a great initiative. This post of yours is very relevant for people who believe in helping the poor.

  5. Pingback: The Spark - The Shame of Poverty

Leave a Reply