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On poverty

June 26, 2010

Sucre: Eighteen months into this journey around the developing world and it doesn’t get any easier to walk past the destitute, past beggars who plead for help, past mothers sitting on the street with an infant clamped to a breast and a grubby toddler who’s been sent to clutch at every passing gringo, past the crippled and the old who spend their days sitting out in the cold in silent resignation with an upturned hat.

Most of the world’s humans spend their days from childhood onwards in a monotonous quest to obtain the minimum number of calories and water to sustain themselves and their dependents. I’ve seen people failing to achieve this in countries from India to Ethiopia; people who literally have nothing.

What a different world I come from. We are of the same species, the same time, often the same age, and yet in one of the great injustices of all, I get to tour their lives while they can only guess at mine. Only a quirk of chance liberates me from the same miserable poverty. What do you do, I am asked in return after my many questions. I am a journalist – this, they sort of understand, after all, newspapers are sold in many places. I am a writer – no, I might as well tell them I play the lute. There are few books and few readers in the developing world. Seeing a person reading is to know that they are foreign, or at the very least that they have spent several years in Europe of the US.

Escribo de tu. I am writing about how you had to move from your village where you grew food to eat because the river dried up and the rains that were so dependable just stopped coming. I am writing about how you had to walk most of the way here to the city with your three children to find work, but how you still haven’t managed to find work, so you sit here most days and beg for food or money. I am telling people who have not met you about your life and how it has changed like the weather.

In Latin America, most nations have emerged from years of military dictatorship (and, before that, oppressive colonisation) with an understandable desire for social justice, for a modicum of control over their working lives (forced labour is still widespread in many countries including Brazil) and for a share in the wealth generated by exploiting their nations’ resources (Bolivia, for instance, is one of the poorest on the continent, yet the richest in terms of resources). To some extent, the new socialist governments have been successful. Social welfare now exists in some form in most countries, and education has been prioritised. Yet there is a long way to go.

Bertha teaches Nick Spanish

At the institute in Sucre where we take Spanish classes, for example, our teacher Bertha also teaches English to a group of teenagers from wealthy local families. Bertha, a friendly woman in her thirties, might be the best English teacher in the city, but she can’t string a grammatically correct sentence together in the language. She makes the most basic mistakes and has no idea of the meaning of common words. It’s not a problem for us, because we’re learning Spanish, but if this is the standard of private tuition, then the state funded situation is surely worse.

But here in Bolivia as in most poor countries, education is highly prized as a route out of grinding poverty. No matter that one small desk is sat at by three pupils, that the teacher is barely more educated, that there are no text books, families still overcome all the odds to get their children to school. The big problem will arise when these children graduate to find there are few opportunities even for the educated, as I have seen in places like Uganda.

But I am optimistic. I do believe things are improving here for the very poor.

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