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Second world problems

Thursday, December 12, 2013
London Calling

“This is a third world country,” I hear trinis say. When I disagree—pointing to the thousands of SUVs, huge oil drilling industry, foreign investment, US-style shopping malls, golf courses, the speed at which urban roads are paved (putting Britain’s local councils to shame), free education, subsidised energy bills, water, fuel, medicine—the response is usually, “Well, they tell us we’re still a third world country.” They, meaning the international community, IMF or the World Bank. 


I wonder whether it will comfort Trinis to hear UK Guardian columnist Aditya Chakrabortty this week describe the UK as a developing country too? Perhaps a sense of Schadenfreude that the old colonial master is on his knees while money floods through this once enslaved colony? 


Direct comparisons between the quality of life and cost of living in real terms between the UK and T&T is difficult. There are indexes to refer to. GDP, average income the poverty index etc but statistics can be used to prove or disprove ideas.


While salaries are lower here, the cost of living is much cheaper (consumer prices including rent are 45 per cent lower than the UK). 


The CIA World Factbook says 17 per cent of the T&T population lives below the poverty line compared to 14 per cent of the UK population. That’s pretty close for a supposed third world country vs a global superpower. 


What does a “developing country” mean in reality? The term third world is outdated, coined during the Cold War when America and Europe were classified as First World, the communist Soviet Bloc as Second World and Africa, Asia, South America as Third World. Propaganda used to suggest capitalism was the preferred socio-economic system.


I’ve been to developing countries in West Africa and the Middle East. The infrastructure, employment rates and modernised facets of T&T life are incomparable to those in Ghana or Syria. You don’t walk into public bathrooms in those countries and find motion-sensor sink taps, auto flushing toilets and sanitised bathrooms. In Syria, you feel thankful the toilet is a w/c not a hole in the ground. Millions of people live in tiny shacks with tin roofs, social housing is non existent. Beggars on the streets numerous, many in need of medical help. 


Here, even those living in HDC working apparently low paid jobs in retail or, ahem, journalism, fly back and forth from New York or Miami like taking the bus.


Some say Trinis can’t afford these luxuries (cars, air travel etc) and that they live in debt. The UK is one of the world’s debt capitals. We live in our overdrafts and by month end we’re lucky if our bank accounts are only -£1,000. We stack up debt on credit cards and pay it back in tiny amounts. 


Renting a room in London costs £600-700 ($6,000-7,000) a month. My tiny studio flat commands rent of £1,040 a month ($10,400). Quite obscene. Here I share a beautiful apartment in Cascade for a quarter of that price.


Filling a car with petrol in England costs £60-80 ($600-800). Here it costs $120. UK gas and electricity bills average £110 ($1,100) a month. Here in T&T that would keep you going for three months. 


Education is free here and T&T has one of the highest literacy rates in the world, sending dozens of scholarship winners to overseas universities every year. The Public Health Service is not without its problems but British hospitals and standards of care are just as much of a lottery; overstretched and under resourced the NHS is on the point of collapse. Patients go into hospital for routine operations and die from contracting hospital-borne diseases like MRSA because hospitals are unclean. There are countless NHS horror stories. 


Leaving aside the extremes of poverty and wealth, eg Beetham Gardens (which may be marginally materially worse off than a Glasgow tenement housing project) and Lady Chancellor Rd (which might be slightly less rich than Kensington & Chelsea) the average working class or middle class triniis, in my opinion, at least on a par with the equivalent in Britain, if not better off. 


Trinidad is often described as a banana republic, relying solely on one product’s exportation for economic stability and with profits going to those in power. Chakrabortty says of Britain, “Even banana republics have cash: it just ends up in the hands of a very few people,” then explains how the UK is no different. 


One is of course aware that the money in T&T (thanks to the black gold oozing from the ground) is finite and one hopes the government is putting lots away for the bust times not frittering it away during boom. If England and T&T are on a par then what’s left to decide is whether both are “developed” or “developing”, first world or third. Let’s cut our losses and say we’re both second world. Fair’s fair. 


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