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Why rich countries might have it wrong about wellbeing and human development

Pyae Phyo Maung argues that the aid industry often doesn't reflect different social values about wellbeing.

If you are a rich man, who is looking at a poor family and see that ‘Hmm! Their lives are very miserable because they do not have comfortable lives that we have like luxurious apartments, cars, jewelleries and things’. If you have good will, you may want to donate money for a meal for that poor family.

Is this scenario a mini version of our current development industry?

People from the rich countries see people from developing countries as those who are living under very poor living standards with very poor infrastructure, human resources and wellbeing. So they start foreign aid programs to support poor countries and help people to escape from the poverty.

But a key question is whether using standard criteria is enough to make judgments about people’s quality of life, wellbeing and poverty status?

For me, I think it is not enough.

For the first scenario, a poor family may have limited recreational facilities and may have concerns to feed their children’s daily meals. But from the other side, their lives may have better wellbeing than the rich in some aspects.

For example, as there is no separate bedroom for family members, which requires children to sleep together and this creates good bonding between family members.

As they do not have any valuable things, they may sleep well without any concern over losing things. They may simply enjoy their lives through living, feeling, watching and listening to nature, while the rich may have to watch the nature through National Geography or imagine what could be out there.

Similarly, being a human being in (what other see as) a poor country may not necessarily mean that we have poor wellbeing. For example, regardless of standard definition of extreme poverty, which states that people who receive less than one USD per day, a rural Myanmar family with lower than this income level may be self-reliant and self-sufficient to feed their family with the products of their home garden and fish from the nearby river.

Lack of electricity at night in village may favour more family interactions and playing activities for children under the moonlight.

Lacking infrastructure and facilities prompts people to do more collectively and promote inter-dependence and social coherence through helping each other.

I saw one village, where the whole village was actively taking care of a vulnerable family with mental health problems. In every rural village, it is not rare to see that the children from one family are being taking care by the neighbours while their parents go out for their jobs.

In contrast, in developed countries or better-off communities, the parents are struggling with very expensive baby-sitting cost for their children when they work.

It means that the term ‘quality of life’ is unique, context dependent and it is up to how people see them and value them. The most importantly, it is inextricably tied to social values and norms and thus it may be different from society to society.

However, in this world, which is mainly governed by the rich, the quality of life standards and norms are set against the rich standards.

By using these and looking through a simplistic lens at human development, the aid industry attempts to promote unified approaches.

The aid industry becomes more and more supply driven and less and less reflects social values, norms and standards.

As long as the system keeps going, getting the true community development may still far away.

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