Glorifying poverty?

It’s an inevitable part of economic development: as infrastructure is improved, and capital is accumulated, and production processes and markets become more efficient, old ways of doing things disappear. There is a nostalgic Irish song that puts it quite well:

By trade I was a cooper;
lost out to redundancy;
like my house that fell to progress
my trade’s a memory

The song played through my mind all the time when we saw what was left of the floating market of Cai Be, in the Mekong delta. Our guide told us the once famous floating market was disappearing rapidly in favour of the land-based market now that infrastructure in the region has been much improved. That is perhaps a shame, but perhaps it’s also shameful that we think it’s a shame.

Like the wooden barrels and casks they used to make, there are few coopers left in our modern economy. We store our beer in aluminum kegs now: much more durable, much more hygienic, much more efficient. But as tourists, we lament the demise of the old ways, for they make our holiday destinations ‘charming’ and ‘exotic’. We curse progress when floating markets are replaced by supermarkets, when thatched roofs turn into corrugated iron, or when small-scale fishers get a job at an industrial-scale purse seiner.

But much of what we find charming is in fact a sign of poverty. Many people in developing countries prefer a corrugated iron roof over a thatched one, and they will get it as soon as they have the money to buy it. Floating markets emerged due to lack of good road infrastructure. Those men playing Chinese chess in a local Vietnamese coffee shop? You may call it the good life, but you might as well call it unemployment.

Yes, as developing countries get richer they start looking more like us: there will be more shops (more chain stores, also, unfortunately), more cars, fewer street stalls, better infrastructure, cleaner streets. Prosperity is often accompanied by a certain cooling of interpersonal relations as people become busier, more efficient, and more business-like. Some of these changes are to be welcomed (better health care, cleaner streets), some changes may be a necessary price to pay for the welcome changes (more efficiency, less surprises), some changes are to be lamented (loss of traditions, old professions that become folklore at best).

But honestly, should they stay poor so you can make pretty pictures?

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