Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Extended Family and Other Myths

Sometimes people write about developing countries as if they are all very similar and they may throw in terms like 'extended family' and 'coping strategies', as if this makes poverty, illness and unemployment less of a burden. They write about 'incongruities', such as drought and famine, but lots of smiling children, playing happily in the dust.

Some people do 'cope', because they have no other option. Many live in large families and they do co-operate, with the sick, young and old being looked after by the able bodied. And of course, children play happily in the dust or mud or whatever.

However, such commentators may not see or may choose to ignore the children and adults lying in bed or the ones who never come out because their disabilities are too great or because they are too stigmatised, for example.

The fact is, people in developing countries have family disagreements, neighbourly jealousies, local spats and far more serious eruptions of discontent and outright violence, just as they do in other countries.

Here in Nakuru, there are differences and perceived differences that make it unlikely that some people will agree to work with some others and that community based organisations with members who see themselves as essentially different from other members can be prone to failure, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. Merely setting up a group that consists of members from different groups does not mean people will work happily together.

I don't believe this situation is all that different from wealthier countries. But crucially, many people in developing countries need support, perhaps many different kinds of support, right away and often for a very long period.

There is a severe shortage of most basic resources in developing countries, food, clean water, education, employment, etc. These are some of the things that allow them to be characterised as underdeveloped. When there is a shortage of resources, knowing that your neighbour has plenty when you have none is bound to cause discontent, no matter how friendly you have been in the past.

When people are under extreme pressure, they can do extreme things. Some don't, perhaps most people don't. But community based organisations and various initiatives are often set up when people are already under extreme pressure and they are therefore already precarious.

The majority of people in developing countries have been waiting for much or all of their lives for the most basic of goods. I suspect that that is why now, some people seem to grasp at anything that comes their way, even if it is intended to be shared with others. I think if I were starving, or if my children were, I would do pretty much anything to get food.

This doesn't explain why some of the richest people in the country, politicians, business people, colonials who remained after independence and various other organisations, also grab what they can. Some of them have been stealing vast sums of money and resources intended for people who were in dire need.

It doesn't explain why large multinationals exploit developing countries and see them as vast markets, why international organisations pretend to help developing countries when they are really enriching themselves at the expense of those countries, why huge 'pro-poor' initiatives are really about making rich people richer, selling arms, 'national security' or some other agenda, completely unrelated to development.

It would be nice to think that poverty is really quite a happy, fortunate state, given that the majority of people in the world live in poverty, many in absolute poverty. But it's not true. It's not true that everyone in developing countries live in 'extended families' that make sure no one 'falls through the net'. We just don't see those who fall through the net. It's not true that people 'cope', they either survive or they die, often after a lot of suffering.

Those who see and write about 'extended families' and people 'coping' may just miss or choose to miss those who have fallen through the net, because those who have fallen are no longer visible.


No comments: