Economy … or the Lack of It

Listener 10 October, 1981, republished in Listener Bedside Book, (1997) p.313-314.

Keywords: Growth & Innovation;

“People should be made to see this,” the passenger exclaimed. He and a group of Europeans and Australasians had been stranded half way between West Germany and Australia, when an engine of our 747 ingested a vulture in Bombay. Now we were travelling by bus from the Bombay airfield to the hotel where we were to be put up while the engine was repaired.

The exclamation arose from the shanties we could see from the bus. Sometimes there were 100 metres of hovels, constructed from rubbish dwellings of a standard inferior to many New Zealand children’s play huts. And the passenger reflected the mood of the bus. “How could people be expected to live decently in these shacks? H{»J.’ could we ignore their plight?”

I was more interested in the bus passengers. Here were a group of people who by the standards of their nations were worldly wise -for most this was not their first trip. Moreover, for two decades they have been deluged with images of some of the world’s poorest conditions. Few of us have not seen pictures of such shanty towns and television has provided more spectacular examples.

Individually we respond to appeals for aid. Even the average 10-yearold would respond correctly to a true or false question on the statement “There are many people in the world whose housing is very, very poor.”

Yet it was not until that group saw the shacks that the real significance of such images. and statements, dawned on them. For the record it should it be noted that this occurred before they had reached the sumptuous hotel which made the contrast even starker, and before they were besieged by the mutilated and children begging for money

This problem of limited perception is not peculiar to observers of India or the world’s poor. There is sufficient material in New Zealand for each of us to gain an adequate assessment of South Africa’s apartheid. But race relations conciliator Hiwi Tauroa belongs to a notable group of New Zealanders who had to go to South Africa and see it before they could believe.

It seems to me that we have an internal mechanism to protect us from unnecessary anguish, which enables us to be confronted with adequate documentation and yet not believe. We need the immediacy of reality.

Of course it’s hard to come to terms with the six million living in Bombay, one of the poorest cities in the world. It’s much easier to respond to refugee camps in Kampuchea, drought in East Africa, and floods in Bangladesh, while neglecting the fact that, compared with us, the people were poor before the war, drought or flood. It is too easy to run a fire brigade operation, putting out the fires but never asking whether we should do something in the area of fire prevention –or even let the whole lot bum down.

That evening over dinner a West German businessman talked to me. Despite operating in Egypt he had been dismayed by what he had seen. In his opinion it was only their religion which was stopping the Indians turning communist. It is probably more complex than that. Despite the crowds and the squalor, the people appeared to be happy. Some of the occupants of the shanties wore attractive saris – indicating to this economist that part of the problem was that the shack erectors did not have the legal right to occupy the land and so it was not in their interests to put up permanent buildings.

Nevertheless, simple or complex, the issue remains. In our intellects we know that these conditions exist, but we ignore them in our hearts. I felt obliged to write this column because, although I saw nothing that surprised me, I was made acutely aware that my technical skills as economist were shielding me from the reality that these people were poor. Similarly, politicians year after year have spoken platitudes about the needs of the world’s poor. But their record, reflecting ours, is to have done little about it.

A day later, the bus drove back to the airfield in a way which made a three-engine 747 appear the epitome of safety. The passenger whose quotation began this column remarked, “Thank God we are leaving Bombay.” But we left six million behind us.