Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Life in the Third World

I think that this kind of story is important, but not for the reasons that the reporter (Lisa Mullins of The World, whom I generally like quite a bit) and interviewee think that it is.
Anchor Lisa Mullins speaks with Rochelle Sobel, founder of The Association for Safe International Road Travel -- or ASIRT. Sobel began the non-profit organization after her son, Aron, was killed in a bus crash in Turkey twelve years ago.
As someone who has spent a fair amount of time on the roads in third world countries, I agree completely that developing-world traffic safety is a horrible problem. It can be scary and really, really dangerous to drive in much of the world.

But I don't think that this story captured the degree to which the roots of the problem are economic, and extend to all aspects of life in the developing world. The remark in the interview that most caught my attention was this:
Q: Why haven't [governments in developing countries] done something already?

A: What governments need to realize is that road crashes are preventable... What we need is political will. What we need is the recognition of how immense the issue is, but also that interventions can be put in to place.
That is where I disagree, and where I think the interview missed a crucial point. It does not just take a realization that road crashes are preventable. It does not just take political will to enact the improvements to infrastructure and enforcement of traffic laws that would reduce road accidents. It takes money. A lot of money. And that is something that poor countries don't have much of.

Suppose it would cost $10 million to improve roads and enforce traffic regulations in some city in a poor country. That country's government would have to come up with that $10 million somewhere (which can be difficult for many small, poor countries), and then make the argument that it shouldn't spend that money on more primary schools, or better health care, or more vaccines for children, or stronger enforcement of child labor or environmental laws, or lower taxes.

So this story serves to remind us of an important point: poor countries are well below rich-country standards in many things, including traffic safety, but also including health care, environmental protection, and education. That's because they are poor. And that's why life expectancies are so much shorter in poor countries than rich countries, and why life is still pretty miserable - nasty, brutish, and short - for most people living on this planet.

In other words, the reason why this story sticks in my head is because it is a perfect illustration of one of the many reasons why it sucks to live in a poor country (at least for most people). Unfortunately, the prescription offered by the story (we just need to generate the political will to provide better infrastructure in poor countries) misses the point entirely. Standards of safety will not improve in poor countries until they become less poor. As poor countries become richer, they become better able to provide money for all sorts of things that we in the US take for granted, including safe streets. But as long as they remain in poverty, people living in those countries will continue to suffer daily dangers and discomforts that most people living in a developed country can only imagine.

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