Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Poor South Africa helping rich everyone else?

South Africa is in an flutter today after the President committed the country to contribute $2 billion to the IMF "firewall". The commitment, made at the G20 meeting in Mexico, has drawn a barrage of criticism centred around the objection that this is the poor paying to protect the rich.

The poor paying to protect the rich is a bad thing, but does South Africa really get to call itself poor? The public of South Africa, as represented by commentators and trade unions, clearly consider the country poor. Isolationist-sounding cries of "we have our own problems" (while the country desperately Europe will sort itself out to the tune of most of an export industry), are really, it seems, rooted in the idea that South Africa is a "poor", "developing" country and, as such, should be receiving hand-outs, not helping to prop up the global economy.

I remember having a similar conversation with a Zambian colleague quite soon after it was announced that Zambia had become a middle-income country. The sense was that we're African so of course we're poor. In the same way that there is no great incentive for Western writers to disaggregate "Africa", there seem to be disincentives to African nations distinguishing themselves, at least economically. Show you're not the same as starving Nigeriens and someone's going to ask you for $2 billion apparently.

I wonder the extent to which the same logic applies for some "beneficiaries"? I have seen projects in South Africa claiming to be fighting extreme poverty which, when you visit the implementation site, seem to involve mostly people who own not only land but houses, cars and cattle. The beneficiaries see themselves as poor. And they continue to see themselves as poor, even after they have been assisted (often by lots of people in lots of ways). Objective measures seem to have no effect. How much success is a development project ever going to have if people persist in perceiving themselves as poor, no matter how successfully the project achieves its objectives.

South Africa is not a particularly poor country. Those beneficiaries with the houses and the cars are not particularly poor people. But development, particularly development that focuses on participatory techniques, may struggle to convince them of this. Coincidentally, on the same day, in the same paper, an article about the Happy Planet Index's findings that South Africans are unhappier than Zimbabweans (As an aside, I have reservations about the Index's methodology as well as the grammatical correctness of that headline).

South Africa is a complicated country with lots of problems but few of those problems are absolute poverty. In other South African news, a wrangle over how many of the president's wives should get state benefits. Not #firstworldproblems but not exactly whatever is the opposite, either.

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