Tuesday, June 1, 2010
THE advent of low-cost electronic goods has been a boon for the world's poor. You can ride hours down a dusty road in Togo past mud-brick medieval farmhouses and find an internet cafe where locals keep in touch with their relatives in Europe. You can hike up into the mountains of northwest Vietnam and find Hmong villagers playing music on a Casio keyboard, powered by a flywheel spun by rivulets of water flowing down the mountainside. In Burma and Nepal, cheap Chinese solar cells plugged into car batteries let villagers watch TV when the unreliable national power grid fails. But none of this means these people aren't poor anymore. Those Togolese may be eating nothing but yams for months at a time. The Hmong may be illiterate and stunted. The Burmese and Nepalese may be driven by indigence to sell their daughters.
Yesterday Jamelle Bouie dinged Robert Samuelson for engaging in the consumer-electronics poverty dodge. "Although many poor live hand-to-mouth," Mr Samuelson wrote, "they’ve participated in rising living standards. In 2005, 91 percent had microwaves, 79 percent air conditioning and 48 percent cellphones." Let's put this as succinctly as possible: 30% of Haitians have mobile phones. And in fact, if you're a Haitian with an income in the upper quartile and have a mobile phone, you may not consider yourself poor, in your social context. But if you were an American who was abruptly required to live on an upper-quartile Haitian income, cell phone and all, I'm fairly confident you'd feel pretty poor.
Addendum: Luke Kelly in comments raises a valid issue, so let me make the Haitian point clearer. Last week "This American Life" aired a terrific report on NGOs in Haiti. Reporters Adam Davidson and Chana Joffe-Walt of "Planet Money" talked to a farmer named Gelene Germeus who earns about $600 a year. She can only afford to send one of her daughters to school. She owns the following: a shack; a hard dirt field; two mango trees, the source of her income; and a mobile phone.