That is What Poverty Looks Like

When Rob blogged about James Shikwati the other day, he reminded me of a short and sweet lesson I got from a Kenyan friend once on the subject of globalization.

I’ve never met Mr. Shikwati in person, but I did get to meet June Arunga, who worked with him running youth education programs at a free-market think tank in Kenya. June is a brilliant, young free-marketeer who had already done a documentary for the BBC at the tender age of 22. In “The Devil’s Footpath,” she travels the length of Africa trying to figure out why a continent so rich in resources has fallen so far behind.

Here’s a great story she told me once. It takes place in a cab in Cancun, Mexico. June had arrived, if I remember correctly, for a World Bank meeting there, and had split a cab from the airport to the hotel with two Canadian women. I’ll tell it from her point of view to the best of my ability.

We were traveling into Cancun and I was seeing Gucci stores, fancy restaurants, and big hotels. I was thinking, “Wow, I didn’t realize parts of Mexico were this developed. This is great.” But that’s not what my cab-mates were thinking.

Woman One: “Yuck, look at this. It’s so terrible.”
Woman Two: “I know, you used to come to Mexico and see a different culture. Now, it looks just like home.”
June: “What is it exactly that you miss about the old Mexico?”
Woman Two: “Well, there used to be tiny houses, dusty streets, and merchants selling homemade goods along the road.”
June: “That’s poverty that you were seeing. That’s what poverty looks like.”
Woman One: “But so much has been lost. The culture, you know.”
June: “You said that Canada looks like this. That is prosperity. Do you think that Mexicans don’t deserve that, too?”
Woman One:
Woman Two:
Woman One:
Woman Two:

Ouch. If you imagine it with June’s perfectly calm voice, velvety accent and killer smile, it’s even more devastating. June has a great story. It is voices like hers spreading the freedom she loves that can heal Africa quicker than aid can.

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You can read June’s story, here, told beautifully in her own words. This is my favorite part:

I was introduced formally to freedom and free markets by reading books on freedom. The insights it offered were crystal clear. Presenting to me questions I had never contemplated before, such as what the proper role of government is, and the idea that protection of life, liberty and property were the only functions that could be justified in the existence of governments.

I felt relieved and elated. Relieved because I expected creation of wealth to be very complex, and now I realized that in comparison to the task of central planning, deregulation and liberalization are simple.

And elated because after understanding the institutions of a free society and how they function, I knew that our African parachute had a chance to open and my country had a chance to survive. The plunge into eternal poverty could be broken and we could steer our destiny.

Mary Katharine blogs at the Townhall C-Log, and hopes June runs into many more anti-globalization types in cabs all over the world.

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