Paradoxes of Poverty

As I sit on the plane, I realize that my previous post (“Getting Used to It”) is borderline incoherent.* Since I’m saving up what little motivation to edit my own writing I have for graduate school; I figure I will just try to illustrate what I was getting at with an example.

Hiring – and employing – drivers in Uganda is a nightmare. In my weeks in the field, I can count on one hand the number of times our drivers were on time. One pair of drivers abruptly quit, leaving us stranded four-hours away from our enumeration site. Another driver disappeared suddenly to go to Kampala to have his car repaired, because, somehow, his car was unfit to drive one-hour to our village but could manage the three-hour drive to the city. Drivers typically demand absurd amounts of money for gas, and use it to go joy-riding when off the job. One such jaunt resulted in one driver getting in a drunken wreck, totaling his car – a fact he neglected to tell me until I finally reached him one-hour after he was supposed to arrive the next morning. Although I wanted to fire him, our Ugandan project manager said we couldn’t because we wouldn’t be able to find another driver as reliable. I’m serious.

While I think that most of this behavior is simply inexcusable, last week I did discover one reason that helps explain why our drivers were so terrible. To my surprise, it turned out our drivers were not independent hires but were actually contracted through a legitimate, professional company. We paid the company 80,000 shillings a day for the cars, but I learned our drivers only saw 10,000 of that – meaning their wages and expenses were paid out of less than $5. Suddenly, it seemed a bit more understandable why our drivers were constantly late and poorly rested; making such little money, they could hardly afford to eat, much less stay in our hotel.

One of my Ugandan team leaders proposed that we pay them an extra 10,000 a day, on the assumption that a minor cost would drastically improve the quality of service. It seemed like a good idea, but I didn’t hold the purse-strings. My last night in Uganda, I went out to dinner with Guy, and brought up the idea with him. I was initially taken aback when he said “That doesn’t quite seem fair” (the request for another $5 a day – not their initial pay). As he pointed out, he signed a contract with a driving company, and he’s paying that company plenty of money. The issue is between the company and the drivers, over how the ample money we are paying them ought to be distributed; it so happens that this company has elected for a grossly unfair distribution. And yet the drivers aren’t complaining to their company – they’re turning to white people, who aren’t even technically employing them.

As Guy pointed out, what ought to happen is that the drivers get together, form a union, and demand some higher wages. He added – perhaps quite rightly – that this is what happened in the West; there were no foreigners who came in and artificially increased the wages of textile workers. No, those workers fought against an unfriendly government and violent union busting, struggling for ears to get higher wages and shorter days. While there are plenty of reasons that this analogy doesn’t necessarily hold – Uganda’s huge legions of unemployed, smaller economic “pie” to divide, and history of colonialism ought to be considered – I think Guy has a point, and I respect and understand that his unwillingness to pay more had nothing to do with being cheap and everything to do with having spent far more time on the ground, dealing with these issues, than I have.

The dynamic I am describing is one I saw played out over and over again during my time in Uganda. While responsibility for some of the root, structural problems of Uganda resides in the West, the day-to-day exploitation and abuse is largely perpetrated by Ugandans against Ugandans – but the search for solutions so often involves turning to the West. It is, after all, Ugandan police who demand bribes from Ugandans, Ugandan bureaucrats who steal money intended for public services. It’s hard to see how this dynamic can be rectified by a third party; ultimately, at least part of the issue is solely between Ugandans and other Ugandans.

There are plenty of dimensions over which I could argue with Guy and others over dependency and responsibility for poverty. But the problem – which I tried to articulate before – is that while we debate, argue, and publish over issues that are undoubtedly important, they – in this case, Fred and Yunus, our drivers – are spending another night sleeping in their cars, having sent $4.75 home to their families and spent $.25 on a single meal for the day. These questions may be debated by academics, but their answers have implications that are anything but ivory-tower.

*Okay, so this is officially a bit dated.

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