The advantages of living in rags

Kamuli hutI was at a humanist gig in town yesterday, and I think I spent too much time talking about myself. One of those times you look back and cringe. Admittedly I went in tired and not at my best; hopefully I wasn’t too annoying. Anyway – I talked a lot about Uganda, and got into a discussion that’s bounced around my head ever since.

I was describing how the local villages probably have just enough food, but the kids are still in rags, and one person started talking about western materialism, and how over here we’re obsessed with having stuff – perhaps we need to see the advantages of living like they do in these communities.

It’s now 24h later, and I’m pretty annoyed. That argument seems to me a left-wing rationalisation to dismiss something people would rather not think about. It tries to hand-wave the problem away by claiming extremely poor people are in some way lucky. That we in the west are the ones with the problem. That these people with nothing actually have it pretty good.

Get lost. Call me a cultural imperialist, but don’t tell me life isn’t better when your home has running water. Don’t tell me life isn’t better with a local shop with affordable food. Don’t tell me life isn’t better with local medical facilities and expertise raising the country’s under-5 mortality rate above 1 in 8. Don’t tell me life isn’t better when your home is easy to clean, and has beds, chairs and tables. Don’t tell me life isn’t better with an electricity supply.

To me these are not subjective standards. These things clearly improve quality of life. And I don’t think it’s patronising or insulting to point this out – you could be patronising or insulting in how you go about helping, of course, but there’s nothing wrong with saying it.

I don’t see the slippery slope, either. Basic human rights like food and water don’t inevitably lead to oh-so-awful things like wanting to buy clothes. I’m pretty skeptical that modern society is anything like so consumerist as the commentators would have us believe – do you know anyone who’s as obsessed with buying stuff as the stereotype suggests? – but let’s say they’re right. Let’s say western society is completely obsessed with shopping. Good. This is considerably less shitty than not knowing where your next meal is coming from, not being able to provide shoes for your family, walking miles to the local water pump every day, and having to worry about malaria mosquitoes killing your children. I obviously don’t think everything about western civilisation is perfect, nor that everything about living in a hut is horrific, but if the average Ugandan village became a carbon copy of the average UK village, I would be fine with that (not that this is anything like the goal, obviously). This is not pushing a way of life onto other people, this is about reducing suffering.

I can understand the romantic impulse to pretend the Ugandan villages have a lovely, simpler approach to life to which we should all aspire.  It would be nice if it were true. But it’s not. I don’t think it’s a actively uncaring argument, and I expect the person who said it was a decent person, but it’s an easy way to lie to yourself, and it has consequences. The next step in the argument would surely be that we don’t need to help, and that’s simply inhumane.