Dictating to the 'perfect' poor

Western notions of what is appropriate for the developing world are based on preconceptions and hypocrisy. But leaders of the poorest countries can be just as ignorant, argues Nkem Ifejika.

It could have been an Anthony Minghella adaptation of the Titanic story, set in the desert, complete with gushing oil fountains and picturesque date palm trees.
After the murderous tyranny of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime, after the thunderous rapture of Coalition “shock and awe”, and now during the fractious peace of occupation/liberation, the band played on.

The band in question is of course, the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra (INSO).

In December, the INSO will perform in Washington DC alongside the US National Symphony Orchestra, on invitation from Michael Kaiser, head of the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts.

The US State Department must be drooling at what appears to be a perfect experiment in international diplomacy and relations building, the kind of which Paul Bremer’s Coalition Provisional Authority has so miserably failed to demonstrate.

Rather than being a light-hearted episode in the Iraq saga, there are probably as many detractors as there are supporters of the INSO’s trip to Washington.

Whenever an impoverished nation, such as Iraq, decides to invest vast sums of money in anything other than the usual bedrock of health, education and infrastructure there are cries of misappropriation, misplaced priorities and irresponsibility.

As far as the detractors are concerned, a poor nation should not be investing in football stadia, but in schools, not in national symphony houses, but in day-care centres.

This kind of thinking is based on two false premises of condescension.

There is the idea that impoverished people cannot enjoy hobbies that are apparently too expensive for them and their governments, since their minds are kept busy by hunger and disease.

And also, the idea that these governments have misread the needs of their people, while undertaking expensive vanity projects that end up as white elephants.

These are views that abound mainly in the West, with western NGOs and governments rebuking impoverished nations whenever a new stadium is built.

What is always displayed is the Wildean maxim of knowing “the price of everything and the value of nothing.”

The joy one might feel after seeing a performance of Verdi’s Rigolleto, or seeing one’s national team in action cannot be quantified within the confines of free market economics.

However, in the capitalist world of today, some of these expenditures can be justified.

Take municipal Brazil, a large percentage of whose population live in abject poverty, in some of the most crime-ridden slums in the world.

Their constant ploughing of funds into football stadia and infrastructure would normally be condemned by those that pull the purse strings of the global economy.

But football in Brazil is an industry in itself, exporting more players than any other country in the world, helping with social awareness in the favelas, and generally fostering good feeling throughout the nation whenever the national team, the “Seleçao,” succeed.

The developing world as it stands today cannot wait for every single person to have electricity before it produces its own light bulbs.

It cannot wait for every single person to have potable water before its people enjoy the beauty of a man-made water feature.

As Charles Dickens was protesting against child poverty and brutality in Victorian England, Michael Faraday was making advances in the field of electricity generation, a development Oliver Twist is unlikely to have had the pleasure of enjoying.

Surely, none would prevent Michael Faraday from proceeding with his experiments on the basis that poverty still existed in England.

The country guiltiest of technological and cultural advancement in spite of the immense suffering of its people is the old Soviet Union.

As millions were starving to death, and being sent to gulags, the Russians sent man into space, developed the AK-47 assault rifle, produced musical virtuosi and athletes of supreme ability.

Yet, today we find the techniques of Soviet gymnasts being used to train the Western ones, and we find that advances used in Soviet space travel helped to send the recent Chinese “taikonaut” into orbit.

Though India and China between them possess most of the world’s poor, they are at the forefront of technological advancement.

It would be a folly to make them wait for all citizens to achieve a universal state of comfort before any quest for knowledge or self-improvement can begin.

Poverty and high culture or technological advancement are not mutually exclusive.

It is the lack of search for remedies for poverty, and all other quests for knowledge that are incompatible.

Improvement must be sought in all areas, and not just in the areas that are deemed suitable for the supposedly lesser minds of the developing world.