My daughter Andrea, born in Sweden of a Swede and a Spaniard, was around three years and half when she saw the Eurocup Semifinal in 2012,
Spain against Portugal. Since I want, well, wanted, her to like football, I said “come and sit here, Andrea. Spain is playing”. She turned to me, looking puzzled to the verge of panic, and asked “how?”.
The question is very pertinent. How can a country play football? Making sense of the word country is very difficult, even for us grownups. For many decades, we in the development sector, and along with us everyone, has talked about poor countries. The OECD and the World bank classify the countries by their income, and plans are made to make them well off. This is how poverty is eradicated, country by country. Several factors has contributed in the decrease of the number of poor countries, and it is expected that this direction will continue.
But when we look at the number of poor people, the picture is not quite the same. Today, a majority of people in poverty live in middle income countries. With that in mind, my daughter’s question is very relevant. In which way is a country poor?
When we say that Guatemala is not a poor country anymore, the key question is how we can make that statement. At the country level, GDP and GDP per capita brings Guatemala above the threshold of low income countries. However, at the people’s level, more homicides are committed today than murders were made during the civil war, the economic inequality is record high and the so-called democracy serves land and natural resources to companies in a silver platter.
And there are many examples like the one above. Zambia’s economy has grown between 5 and 7% for a decade, but it still holds the same poverty levels. Despite this, it is soon expected to be promoted from a lower middle income country to a higher middle income country. South Africa, an upper middle income country, has a strong economy, but it is ruled in practice by one only party, the ANC. Democracy in the country would improve a lot if all citizens where allowed to vote for the presidency of the ANC as well. With all this in mind, I wonder what it means that a country is not poor anymore? In other words, can a country that hosts poor people really be a wealthy country?
We, the development workers, have with these facts two challenges knocking at our door. First, we must pinpoint the reality that it is people, not countries, that are poor. That way, aid and pro-poor policy making will not withdraw the aid from one of the most violent and unequal regions in the world, like for example Sida’s plans to phase out from Latin America. Second, we must accentuate the non-economic aspects of poverty as well as human rights. The Marikana mine workers in South Africa live in a richer country and have higher incomes than if they would cultivate a plot of land in Zambia. However, they are employed by a company able to bargain down their salaries and the taxes they pay to the country, and are shot dead by the police when demonstrating. This must come to an end, and we as development workers play an important part in that process.
It is my belief that good democracies that deliver economic equality and prosperity for all, that create a gender balance, that defend human rights and that prevent and solve conflicts will make poor people go through the poverty threshold. If that makes the country richer, better off; if not, who cares?