Extreme poverty; a global problem

Feb 11, 2016

Prior to starting this epic adventure, I had seen some pretty tough living conditions for those in poverty. But it really took spending a lot of time on the road being surrounded by these conditions to fully appreciate just how good we in more developed nations have it. It’s easy to look at photos or even pass by some impoverished places and say “wow, those are some rough conditions” but until you expose all your senses to it every day for a significant amount of time, you really can’t grasp the scale and severity of poverty around the world. Well, my eyes have been opened. During this trip, I have seen just how few people know anything but a world of pollution, danger, low wages and at languish.

Pollution is perhaps the most striking of these and I notice it almost everyday. You simply can’t imagine the scale of pollution in some places properly without seeing it, smelling it and wading through it on a regular basis.

In most developing countries, sanitation services just don’t have the resources to make a difference. The services exist but they simply can’t keep up. Taxes are not collected and/or used properly to handle the issue and in many instances, the living wages are so low that you can barely afford food of any kind, so you can forget about trying to afford indoor plumbing or waste management services.

The pollution you see is mostly plastic, smog, Styrofoam and human waste. The plastic is usually bags from shopping or food. The smog is from the millions of engines burning fuel seemingly around the clock 24/7 with no emissions control and often no muffler. Trucks, busses, cars, boats and the millions of little motorbikes everywhere belch thick black smoke into the air and into the lungs of inhabitants. Often times, garbage is just burned openly adding to the air pollution and overall foul odor in some places. It literally causes you to become ill at times and is jokingly referred to as the “city cough.”

The Styrofoam is generally food related but it’s not just cups and containers, it’s also cheap coolers used to transport food or ice. It eventually breaks apart and covers beaches or floats along waterways.

The human waste is, well, of all sorts. Diapers, urine and feces make their way into publics spaces at times and what doesn’t is often corralled into a sewer system that empties to a river or stream. When it rains, these streams swell with the runoff from the cities and farms carrying garbage, chemicals and all that human waste into the water to concoct a nauseating sludge that flows openly into waterways and eventually out to sea to be shared with the rest of the world. Waterways are generally health hazards in many of these places and, unless you get close to a source of water like a spring or highland backcountry stream, you can all but guarantee that the water is unfit to drink or even use for arrogation by Western standards without rigorous filtration.

Polluted water is a real problem and the situation is getting worse everyday. Crops are often lower yield, the waters are completely overfished and unable to foster an environment for healthy fish repopulation and the water simply can’t be used for anything. You don’t need to be an expert to detect the contaminants, just open your eyes and take a big whiff. In some areas, it’s enough to make you gag but that doesn’t stop the inhabitants from crowding into every crevice around the waterway because those areas usually come cheap and are considered built in waste disposal systems adding to the problem. One example that comes to mind whenever I reflect on this issue is from the Philippines outside of Cebu City. We were taking a bus from the North to the South and passed through a portion of the city where small shanty style homes were stilted up right to the waters edge. Literally hundreds of PVC pipes led from each shanty to the waters edge carrying wastes of all kinds. The stream was choked with garbage and had a greyish color with a rainbow sheen on the surface from the engine repair shops dumping oil directly into the stream. It stunk to high-heaven but the families living there have no other option. Like anywhere in the world, the shit flows down stream from the city. 

The standard of living we enjoy in developed nations, even in our poorer communities, is tremendously high compared to many other places around the world. You might say “well I had it rough when I was a kid, we had to work hard for what we got,” but there is simply no comparing the conditions I’m talking about to others you have experienced unless you are from one of these places. You can’t one-up the plight of some of these folks unless you were born in a trashcan, lived in a sewer, ate contaminated food your entire life and had no choice but to raise your children in the same conditions. To say it is a hard environment is putting it mildly; it is a wasteland occupied by people who are stuck in a vortex of poverty.

Lack of opportunities, education and pay seem to be the common themes in these types of places. Education opportunities might be available but the standards tend to be low and the ability to stay in school instead of trying to earn money for your family is frequently an insurmountable challenge. Whatever opportunities do exist are generally low paying and often hazardous. You can work your way up in society but it’s a long climb with few milestones and in many instances, requires generations of climbing to even achieve a modest living. The outlook is beyond bleak for many and it’s no wonder some seek shortcuts, like crime, to get what they want/need.

Crime and security problems are not as widespread as the rest of these issues but they of course exist. Petty theft is most common but robberies happen at a higher rate in more desperate places where either need or want compel people to take higher risks for higher rewards. It is rare in many places to see a home without bars on the windows and/or a massive wall with electrified barbed wire strung along the top even in more developed countries where the poverty is not as widespread. You actually take notice when you see a home with unbarred windows facing the street or a yard that is open to the sidewalk. It’s a bit of novelty in Central and South America, particularly in the more densely populated areas.

Writing about this stuff, especially about the pollution, makes me quite mad. It’s hard to see it everyday knowing the impact it has on the world and just how big the problem is. As someone who really loves the water and nature in general, it’s deeply saddening to see places that are all but beyond repair. It’s also maddening to see people making the situation worse with complete disregard for the impact on their own environment but it is all they have ever known. It’s hard not to blame them as surely they are responsible for their actions but the conditions have become a societal norm. It is the same as someone tossing a cigarette butt on the sidewalk, it irks me to no end but we as a people have seen it our entire lives so it almost appears normal. Just like clean drinking water and a clean environment are the norm for people in developed nations, putrid water and throwing your waste anywhere is the norm in others.

I don’t have a solution to all these problems but I think education is the best starting point. Education generally leads to greater opportunities, which gives way to improved living conditions and a higher standard of living in general. That higher standard allows a civilization to tackle some of the other issues like sanitation, environmental impact and crime. As these issues subside, progress is made on all fronts and society prospers. The prosperity increases the tax base and, with any luck, a responsible government spends those taxes to provide basic services and improve conditions for the common good. At some point, abundant prosperity creates demand for even higher standards (a cleaner environment, better roads, more efficient transportation systems, etc.) and conditions begin to improve exponentially. It snowballs and gains momentum and societal norms change. Instead of worrying about where food and shelter might come from, people focus on other problems and the ball keeps rolling. At least that’s how I think it can go, given a little luck. It’s a heck of a lot less depressing than the death spiral of poverty that is equally self-perpetuating and unfortunately a current reality in many places.

Something has to ignite change in these places and I honestly can’t think of anything other than education as a starting point. Education alone is not a nation builder but I have to assume that a more educated and skilled population will have a better shot in life than an uneducated and/or unskilled one. In many of the places that come to mind as I write this, opportunities for people to work hard in exchange for a decent living are simply not available. 

Yes, we in the more developed countries are quite fortunate indeed and while we continue down our own increasingly shaky paths of prosperity, I wonder to what extent we should help developing nations make progress. I’ve certainly read about aid supplied to other countries in the past and have heard many people lament the idea of helping other nations prosper when we have our own problems to deal with but now, I think I understand it a little better. The notion of global prosperity being good for our own nation is not a new concept to me but now the problems we must help other nations tackle and how they affect us globally are a little more real. I can tell you a little more about what these problems look like, how they smell and how they feel to the touch.

PS. I don't have any good photos to share with this post but I'll update it when I do. Sorry about that but usually when we come across the really nasty stuff I'm too sad or shocked to even snap a photo.


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