When the world’s richest met the world’s poorest

There’s this website where you can put in your salary and compare how much you earn not just to the rest of the UK, but to the rest of the world.  It tells you that if you earn the average wage in the UK or above (>c.£25k) then you’re in the top 1% of global earners.  To be in the top 1% doesn’t require you to drive a Ferrari or own a yacht.  It requires you to work at M&S.

I only remembered the above when I was on the plane back from Ethiopia, where I’ve been for two weeks, doing some work for the Agricultural Transformation Agency (ATA) into what they need to say to farmers to encourage them to adopt new farming practices.  Beyond the specifics of the project, which was fascinating, there was one incident that has had a significant impact on me.  It’s an incident that highlighted the differences between the world’s richest (me) and the world’s poorest (Ethiopian farmers).

We were just outside a town called Soro, about 4 hours south of Addis Ababa.  We had been interviewing farmers all day on their attitudes and uptake of new farming technologies and practices.  We learnt that the farmers grow their crops which, typically, provided them with enough food for their family to eat as well as enough to sell to provide the money to buy seeds and fertiliser for the next season.  If they were lucky, then they had enough excess crop to buy things like clothes or send their children to school.  So, this is ‘less than a dollar a day’ living.  These are some of the poorest people in the world.

At the end of the day two of us, an Addis local and myself, wanted to know if it would be okay to take a peak in one of the farmers huts that we’d seen so many of on the journey to Soro and indeed on other travels around the country.  Indeed, there are 80 million people in Ethiopia and about 85% of them are farmers and I understand that the majority of those live in these type of huts.  That’s a lot of people.

The government Development Agent said that was fine and walked us down the track and introduced us to the family living in a beautiful hut with a painted exterior.

We went inside.

The first thing that stuck me was how dark and cool it was.  It was nearly 6pm, so the sun was going down but inside it was a refreshing change from the heat of the day.  However, if they didn’t light a fire soon, there was going to be no light.  There was no electricity, no gas, no solar lights, no kerosene lamp.  Indeed, there seemed to be nothing that wasn’t made of grass, mud or wood, other than farming implements.

The circular hut had a mud floor with a central pillar (like a mast on a ship).   It had a diameter of about 4 metres so the total floor space was like a studio flat in London.  Similar to a studio flat, there was a space for eating (table and bench seating), cooking (a fire pit) and sleeping (a double bed).  However, this was all in front half of the hut (i.e. half the space).  There was a partition down the centre behind which was an empty floor.

The reason for this became clear when I realised how many people lived in the hut.  There were the two parents with baby twins, three boys under the age of 10 and two elder daughters and a grandfather.  So, that’s ten people.  I guess that the parents slept on the bed with the twins.  This would mean that everybody else slept on the mud floor behind the partition.    However, there was also another slightly sectioned off area inside.  What was this for?  It was for their two oxen that slept in the hut with the family every night.

What to think about all this?  Sad?  Lucky?  Guilty?   Not sure.

My confusion over what to think was compounded when we conducted a focus group of village elders.  These included the mayor of the village and the local judge.  At the end of the group, the judge stood up, made a speech and blessed the meeting.  Someone then bought in a huge round of freshly made bread and some honey as means to close the session and for us to share a meal.

Interestingly, the honey tasted smokey.  “Why does the honey taste smokey?”  I asked.  “Because they had to smoke the bees out of the hive this morning in order to get the honey for us to eat” was the answer.

I have never been thanked by anyone for asking questions before.  Let alone a judge and a mayor.  And never been given a gift for being a guest in someone’s place.  I would always take a gift as the guest, not expect to receive a gift for being the guest.

So, what to think?  What it’s like to meet and spend at least a little time with those at polar opposite of the income spectrum?

I guess my response to that is ‘balance’ in that both lifestyles represent an imbalance.  They have too little and that I have too much.  That I live in a society that’s gone for ‘stuff’, individualism and consumerism and places a reduced emphasis on community.  That they haven’t got enough ‘stuff’ but have a remarkable sense of community and family (by circumstance rather than choice perhaps).

However, I do understand that it’s possible to romanticise that life of a farmer and I would not want to do that.  From the stories that we heard and what we saw, it’s back-breaking, grinding work, generation after generation.  However, I believe it’s equally incorrect to romanticise the Western way of life.  Who says that being in the top 1% of earners is the best place to be?  Just because this is what qualifies as ‘success’ by our Western culture, doesn’t necessarily mean that you have the richest life.  Study after study about the deteriorating mental and physical health of those in the West is testament to that.  Now maybe I’m being naïve in saying this.  I’m coming from a position of financial security and I’m making these grand statements as a result of being in Ethiopia for a couple of weeks.  Perhaps that’s a fair point.  However, equally, it could be arrogant thinking of the rich to believe that it’s naïve?  To believe that being financially rich is a key (if not the key) definition of success – GDP growth us the only measure in town – seems remarkably narrow-minded to me.

What does it all mean?  Am I going to try and do more work in Ethiopia?  Perhaps.  Am I going to donate money to the country?  I doubt it.  Have I had my perspective altered about what I should consider important in life?  Definitely.

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