I’m sure you’ve seen those emails or graphics that describe what the world would be like if it was comprised of only 100 people representing a cross-section of our current world of over 7 billion. Today I found one of those graphics on Distractify (WARNING: do not click the link if you have other things you need to get done today).
The World as 100 People, drawn here by Jack Hagley (check out his site; he’s a talented dude), reminded me of how I once viewed this chart as an American, and how differently I view it now from the perspective of my village.
Back home in Alaska, I would look at this chart and have a sense of looking “down” a ladder of development. Not down on other people, just down what seemed a historical road of “not having” all the way “up” to “having.”
Now, things look different.
Squinting at this image from my phone in the village, I realize that I now live among the minorities of the earth, even as I am the minority in my village.
In America, I was part of the 87 people (out of the imaginary 100, remember) with clean, safe, plentiful drinking water. Here, I am the 13 that does not (and even then, our water is better than most in our area).
Back home, everyone I knew had a cell phone. In my village, they are rare and coveted.
At home, I had met only one person – ever, in my life – who was not fully literate. Here, I am the most functionally literate (meaning, reading and writing) person in my village, and likely the catchment area (of 20 square kilometers). Here, I am an extra-extra minority for being college educated woman, whereas most of my village neighbors have not graduated from elementary school. I think of all the Peace Corps volunteers I serve with and realize how insanely over-educated we are in this country, and yet we will feel anxiety about being “qualified enough” to find jobs when we go home.
I live in a place considered by many measures to be chronically impoverished, where most people are undernourished and live less than the average $2 USD/day. People make their housing from the grasses and clays of their environment; they drink the available river water or from natural wells unless they are blessed by a borehole; their diet is comprised almost entirely of food they themselves grow. They are, by every Western measure, poor. They are the 48 out of 100 who live in poverty. Though I make less than $300 USD/month (poor, by American standards), here I am rich, as measured by my tins of milk powder and glistening bottles of cooking oil and ability to afford transport.
I never really understood poverty before I came here. I had been the “poor, starving college student”, and I had been the shoe-string traveler, but poverty had never really been a piece of my life. Even here, I escape it through the support of my government – something Zambians in my village do not enjoy. Now, I look at this chart of 100 people and I realize that the poor people of the world are not living in some other time or historical era where their poverty is less painful than it would be in the U.S. They are not “down” a ladder from where I sit, but rather across a table of the here and now.
There is a theory in the development community that generally states that foreign/Western aid is actually a bigger problem than it is a help, and perhaps the collective aid-giving “we” should just pack up and go home and let Africa be. I have often been tempted by this thought. 500 years ago, maybe this would have been the better way, but now I live in a village where people know, even if it is just a glimpse of knowing, what “better things” are available in the world and, reasonably, they want in on that action. They want less disease and higher incomes and better housing and secure supplies of nutritious, culturally-appropriate foods. We have decided, as a species, that there are certain rights afforded to all people by our inherent nature of being a communal, inter-dependent species sharing a common planet. Sure, maybe life would be simpler in my African village if all the alcohol and cell phones and other pieces of the geographical West were removed, but would it be better?
I listen to my village and I hear talk about the developmental ladder we are climbing. I have to wonder if my role is to sit at the top of that ladder helping people who are already climbing, or if I should sit at the bottom and push people to climb in the first place. I don’t know the answer to that question, nor how to change the color fragment that my villagers would fit into as part of the World’s 100 People.
I think all I can do is better understand the table at which we all sit, and meet the gaze of the person sitting across from me so we can both see our reflections in each other.