When I travel in developing countries I’m reminded of the pitiful state of the global economy, and of our sad attitudes surrounding money. We live in a world of financial abundance – there is enough for all humanity if only we learned to resist greed – yet somehow man has created dramatic inequality. The monetary system is such that whilst the elite minority thrive on their riches, millions of others languish in life-threatening poverty. We have all the tools to fix the problems of the world’s poorest countries but we, the rich countries, choose to keep them in debt, eternally dependant on us.
On the global wealth scale, Indonesia does not rank high. Within minutes of your plane landing or your boat docking you will see financial scarcity in evidence all around. I’m not talking about “poverty” we see in the West which somehow still allows for the purchase of expensive electronics, designer trainers and cigarettes. I’m referring to an extreme level of destitution, where malnutrition is commonplace and starvation is a threat. Millions of Indonesians, of all ages, work long hours in physically demanding, dirty or undesirable jobs for little remuneration, simply to survive.
Anyone with an ounce of compassion would recoil at the sobering statistics of third world hunger and disease, yet it’s often wrongly assumed that one person alone cannot help the gravity of the situation. One of the many reasons I travel in Asia is to spread my relative wealth amongst poorer communities; perhaps on a subconscious level it eases my guilt over being born to more fortunate circumstances, but primarily it is because I believe with great conviction that whilst governments continue doing little to help the world’s poorest nations, we should each do what we can.
And yes, from my perspective we are talking about very little money. Think about thirty pence or the equivalent in your currency: what can that buy you in the western world? In England it won’t even buy chewing gum, but in Asia it equals lunch from a street cart or half a tank of petrol for a moped. Add an extra thirty pence to your accommodation budget and you get a swimming pool. Leaving my pocket that amount is unnoticeable but, for the Indonesian whose pocket it lands in, thirty pence can mean the difference between a full belly and an empty one.
A recent encounter in Bali reaffirmed my belief that individuals can make a difference. At the end of a hot day exploring rice paddies and villages we passed a roadside display of colourful hammocks. Buying a double hammock had been high on our agenda, although we had not yet agreed our budget or considered whether we had space within our backpacks. The hammocks were perfect – recycled from vibrant parachute silk, thus also ticking the eco box – but our tiredness, hunger and thirst felt more of a priority at that particular time and we began to walk away. So what turned us on our heels? Compassion and guilt; the shopkeeper begged us for the sale. She clasped her hands together, and she simply pleaded. She expressed her own tiredness, hunger and thirst, and it put ours to shame. Her face conveyed years of struggle. She did not need to labour the point about feeding her many children, because when we looked into her eyes we saw genuine fear. How many family members relied on that sale for food, health, education? In that moment, our deliberation ceased and the hammock was sold. The relief that rushed through her was visible, and a lump formed in my throat as she hurriedly wrapped our purchase, including extra rope to show her gratitude.
Of course, not all of our monetary exchanges were as heart-warming. We frequently got ripped off by Rupiah-hungry locals using underhand tactics to scrounge profit, and I admit some situations bothered me. I have noticed that in Asian countries capitalist values are taken to extremes and, sadly, somewhere in the rat-race to wealth the original value and meaning of life, of honesty and connection to other human beings is getting lost. Poverty is debilitating and stifles the progression of developing nations, but it’s a shame when lives become utterly consumed by the constant drive to increase material wealth.
Yet it’s worth remembering that it is the Western world that has bred this commercial ideology of aspiring to greater wealth. If we ourselves demonstrate that “more” is never “enough”, how can we feign surprise when greed, dishonesty and ruthlessness become commonplace in poorer countries which are simply trying to better themselves financially, just as we have done? If a Hollywood sit-com actor can demand six-figure-sums per episode, what example does that set to the rest of the world? What if, instead of indulging our selfish appetites in a continual quest for more money than we could possibly know what to do with, we found a happy medium where nobody had too little, nobody had too much?
One afternoon in the Gili Islands, sitting on a cushioned bamboo beruga, we watched as a local man knelt down on a board and paddled out to sea with his fishing rod, where he remained for some time, patiently awaiting his catch. Seeing this, we recalled a story which epitomises the message the West sends the rest of the world about money. In the interests of my word-count I’ll condense this tale, but you’ll get the idea:
A wealthy American businessman meets a fisherman in a small Mexican fishing village. The businessman learns that the fisherman leads a simple life, catching only enough tuna to feed his family, and spending his spare time laughing with his children, playing the guitar and drinking wine with friends. The businessman scoffs: “Why don’t you spend longer fishing, sell your catch and with the revenue buy several boats. As your business grows you could open a cannery, and eventually a global enterprise. You could move to New York City and sell your company shares on the stock market. In 15 years you could become a rich man! Then you could retire and move to a small Mexican fishing village where you would spend your days fishing, laughing with your children, playing the guitar and drinking wine with your friends”. The fisherman simply smiles and asks, “Isn’t that what I’m already doing?”
I’m certain most financiers would recoil at my suggestion that we – the rich West – do more to help struggling nations free themselves from deprivation, and whilst I don’t claim to have the answers to the world’s economic problems, I do believe this: as inhabitants of this extraordinary planet we have a responsibility towards each other. If we are to see any improvement to poverty, we must first see a change in attitudes. What if the current emphasis on personal wealth gave way to the importance of sharing? What if the message we teach our children became this: “It’s not about what you own; it’s about who you are”. What could that wealthy businessman learn from the poor fisherman about life’s true riches?
As a wise man in my life recently said, “I would pay any amount of money to see the monetary system fall” but until then I’ll continue to turn my Sterling into Rupiah, Ringgit and Rufiyaa in the knowledge that individually I can make a difference, however small.