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Rich people are weird

06/11/2013

Due to a set of circumstances too convoluted to go into here, I found myself on board a ship recently with 30-odd rich people or, as we like to say in New Zealand, the "comfortably off". Even though we were travelling through strange lands and meeting strange (as in interesting) people, the weirdest people I encountered were by far my fellow passengers.

I discovered that when some people go to places where the local people are visibly poor it brings out bizarre behaviour. This is especially true of rich people who are practiced experts in guilt projection. Why is there so much litter, they protest? Why do they not wipe their children's noses or wash their clothes? How can they expect to be helped when they wont help themselves? The answers to these particular questions were fairly obvious: there were no rubbish bins for a start, much less track-side refuse collection; and the adults clearly had greater concerns than a bit of snot. When your family lives in the back of a burnt out van in a suburb where there is no sanitation, running water and electricity - let alone jobs, schooling or medical care - you are hardly going to go to the trouble of picking up coke cans. (Note that most of the garbage came from imported products).

However, these "strangers to compassion" (to borrow a Howard Jacobson phrase) continue to look for evidence that poor people are dirty and stupid, and that's why they're poor. Incorrect: poverty is due to a complex mix of history, racism, politics and economics that most non-poor people are too lazy to analyse.  

Getting back to New Zealand. We do love to perpetrate the fantasy that we live in an egalitarian society, but it's not true and never has been. We must now concede in the face of overwhelming evidence that the gap between the haves and the have-nots is growing even wider. And let's make one thing clear, people in New Zealand are poor because there is a serious mismatch between their incomes and the cost of living. One of the weirdos on board was a "comfortably off" lady from Auckland. I very much doubt she ever had an illustrious career or entrepreneurial abilities herself, but through luck or design found herself married to someone who did. She is wealthy only by association, but that didn't stop her from denigrating Auckland's poor. "They choose to live like that", she insisted. Unless you were asking someone like Jesus Christ or Mahatma Gandhi, I do believe that the vast majority of poor people would not choose to be poor. In fact, choice is the very thing the poor don't have. 

Despite their day to day hardships, studies have shown that people in poor countries score more highly on happiness indices. But this is no excuse to allow poverty to continue when it might be in our power to help eradicate it. Instead, these findings indicate that the haves fail to count their blessings. While the happiness of poor people might come from a sense of all being in the shit together, it could also be that in spite of everything they do not have, they have their humanity, 

To find out how you can help eradicate poverty in the Solomon Islands, visit the World Vision and Oxfam websites.