“Starbucks wifi not working on my iPhone #firstworldproblems” – if your twitter timeline is full of such stories, you are probably following a few too many Northern development experts. Though minor inconveniences still trouble their lives of unexotic comfort in London, New York, or academia, they signal self-awareness that these are nothing compared with what they know of Africa, Asia, or Latin America.
To be fair, some of the stories of #firstworldproblems are thoughtful and funny. But these declarations of self-awareness highlight a troubling blindspot, these celebrations of intended irony highlight an unintended one. It springs from the same mindset as the one that argues that the Sustainable Development Goals now being negotiated at the UN needn’t oblige the North to address its domestic inequality and poverty as that would be a “distraction” from “real”, Southern, poverty. The mindset that says poverty is another country. And that mindset threatens the achievement of social justice in the North and South.
When the worldview of the dominant is that becoming first world means an end to poverty, the most vital determinants for overcoming poverty are ignored. There is no teleological inevitability about overcoming poverty – social justice is not a train journey from being Southern to being Northern. It is always a struggle, it is always about values and about power. When this truth is forgotten, or deliberately obscured, poverty gets worse. That is why we have seen the return to mass poverty in the global North. And the forgetting of that lesson also encourages failures to address poverty in the South.
In Mediterranean Europe the EU and the IMF have imposed brutal reductions on living standards that saw massive pauperisation and social dislocation. The IMF has responded to critics by saying that they couldn’t sympathise with Greeks as real poverty was in Africa. But African civil society organisations have responded with more empathy and more insight by pointing out that poverty in Mediterranean Europe has been getting so bad because the same structural adjustment once foisted on Africans has now been getting foisted on Spaniards and Greeks. The protections and the moderation of inequality brought in across the global North with the postwar consensus have been ruptured. 91 year old RAF veteran Harry Smith, recalling his experience of the Great Depression of the 1930s and now seeing Britain’s increasing “payday loan sharks, food banks, [and] housing shortages” writes “it’s not shock I feel but a sense of recognition.” In the US, all of the growth since the crash has accrued to the richest 10%. Actually, more than all of it – the rest is worse off. We cannot exempt the global North from discussions of poverty any more. The willful blindness to Northern poverty is hurting too many people in the North. And the deceit is also hurting people in the South.
Southern Governments like Brazil and Bolivia that have focused on redistribution have successfully reduced poverty at a fast pace. In contrast, while Zambia has moved from officially poor to officially middle income, the number of poor people has actually increased. Britain’s Secretary of State for International Development is not alone in saying of the relationship between growth and poverty reduction: “It really is that simple.” But it isn’t. India’s drive to become an economic powerhouse has become a alternative to addressing the real reasons why it’s child malnutrition rates are twice as bad as Sub-Saharan Africa and why its human development performance is much worse than poor Bangladesh. South Africa’s ANC won plaudits for economic responsibility by abandoning the redistributive calls of the Freedom Charter – and now the gap between rich and poor is worse than it was at the end of Apartheid.
Meanwhile, in the Global North, the norm of security and decent living standards has been replaced by widescale insecurity, and the kind of poverty that we had thought a thing of the past is now back.
One contribution that Northern development analysts can bring to development is to help tell the true story of the North. For example, they can highlight the similarities between way that Glencore avoids paying fair tax in Zambia and the way that Amazon and Google avoid paying their fair share to countries in Europe. Or how austerity is bringing back in the North medical conditions like rickets that we once thought consigned to the history books. Yet like the anthropologists of old they are most reluctant to observe such matters at home. Poverty is treated as a tropical disease rather than as a consequence of inequality. But until we unexempt the North from discussions of poverty we fail not just the poor the North but those in the South too, by helping to perpetuate an assumption that is untrue – that when a country passes a particular economic stage its people are freed from poverty. They are not. It’s time for development experts to admit that poverty is a #firstworldproblem too.