Truths about the Developing World

Those who live in the West and in highly industrialized, developed countries often have many misconceptions about people living in less-industrialized, developing countries. People might assume that everyone lives in a jungle, that they have never heard of Facebook, or that they are all miserable and unhappy. Having studied anthropology and development studies as an undergraduate, and having been to the developing countries of India, Bhutan, and Mexico, I would like to share some thoughts on what the situation is really like.

-People have technology and electronic goods. Granted, this is not everyone, but to assume that nobody has a phone or a computer or a television is completely erroneous. Some might find that the technology in certain situations in developing countries is more advanced than what we would find in the West. For example, over a decade ago, there was a cell phone charging station with at least seven different types of chargers at Madras Anna International Airport–something I had never seen anywhere in America. However, one could generalize that there are issues with regular power supply, the grid, frequent blackouts, and getting electricity to rural and undeveloped areas. Many tech companies have been working on this issue. The infrastructure for power and electricity are what is often most problematic in developing countries, not the actual presence or not of technology.
-There is great wealth. A wealthy family might throw a quinceañera costing tens of thousands of dollars, send their children to boarding schools or American colleges, or fly to Milan or Paris to buy the latest clothes by Prada or Dior. However, a single digit percentage of the population may hold 90% of the country’s wealth while the rest of the people live in great poverty. A middle class may not exist at all, or be a minimal segment of the population. There are extremes in class stratification to a degree we might not see in Western Europe or in many parts of America. America, however, is becoming rather like a developing country, where the rich have gotten richer and the poor have gotten poorer since the Reagan era, and the pandemic has highlighted this to a heart-wrenching degree.
-A history of colonialism. This point is so large and rich that I cannot even begin to address it here. However, there are still many countries that are suffering from centuries of being ruled by a European power, and the United States has created a new form of economic colonialism as well. The CIA has committed countless atrocities overseas.
-Infrastructure, especially with transportation, can be a problem. You might have to fly out of your country to a different airport in order to fly back to another city in your country. A distance of 200 miles may take two days to drive, because there are not suitable roads. This affects access to services and goods.
-Medical care. This varies greatly between developing countries. You may find world-class medical facilities in urban India or Bangkok that service Western medical tourists. However, in parts of (West) Africa, such as Liberia, you may have 10 doctors per million people. Even with medical facilities, there may not be adequate resources and equipment. Airlifting a gravely ill patient may not be a possibility due to large distances or the availability of air transport.
-Political instability. This is a big one. Many developing countries have incredible natural resources or services that could bring the country tremendous wealth and therefore development. However, corruption, mismanagement, fraud, political violence, unstable governments, embezzlement, and a lack of social structures that distribute these resources and services cheat billions of people worldwide from having basic needs fulfilled. However, America, being a hybrid of superpower and developing country, has no right to criticize developing countries, not when we have a revolving door of politicians under our current embarrassment of an administration.
-Epidemics are often a part of daily life. The Covid-19 pandemic is something shocking and unexpected to most Americans, but for many people all over the world, public health crises in the form of diseases is nothing new. Swine flu, HIV, etc. have inflicted so many millions of people globally prior to the pandemic, and developing countries are often better equipped or more knowledgeable as to how to deal with these crises.
-The tension between traditional and modern medicine. Again, this varies greatly between countries. But it is still a significant issue. Scientists may try to suggest that allowing animals to defecate in a river is contaminating their water supply, but people pay no heed. Someone suffering from an epileptic fit might be taken to a shaman to be exorcised from some sort of demon, rather than being given the proper medication to work with the neurotransmitters in the brain. Or, modern/Western medicine may be regarded with some skepticism, as the tool of the white man. Sometimes, local traditions may actually be more effective and inexpensive for treating certain conditions, and Western medicine has come to appreciate these ancient forms of wisdom.
-Climate change. Whether it’s fatal flooding in Bangladesh or drought in farming areas, our modern world is affecting the developing world disproportionately. We have a staggering refugee crisis, and while these may have a political or sociological basis, there is also an environmental component. We have a responsibility in the developed world to do our share to help this problem. However, there are serious issues with pollution in many developing countries, due to the type of vehicles people drive and the type of fuel these vehicles consume. Governments in developing countries could do a much better job of regulating emissions, banning certain types of vehicles and fuels, and working on more environmentally-sustainable alternatives.

There are so many more points to be discussed, but let me conclude by saying that another misconception is that everyone in the developing world is miserable, ailing, and decrepit. There is no question that poverty is one of the most serious afflictions we have in the world today. But we cannot dismiss the fact that human beings are human beings everywhere, that whether rich or poor, people share the same fears, joys, the needs to celebrate, jealousies, curiosities, life milestones like weddings or funerals, etc. What people in the West and developed world need to understand is how better to help the developing world so that people in those countries are not exploited or do not suffer certain (easily ameliorated) conditions–especially those created by wealthy countries like the United States.

Movie Review: “The Queen of Katwe”

Disney’s name may be on the film, but “The Queen of Katwe” is anything but a run-of-the mill (but always enjoyable) family movie. Nor is it yet another chess film à la “Searching for Bobby Fischer,” “Pawn Sacrifice,” or the French gem “Queen to Play.” What makes “The Queen of Katwe” refreshingly unique is its distinctly non-Western, developing world sensibility. Thanks to Indian director Mira Nair, Western audiences can see a true, intimate portrait of slum life and Third World poverty, as well as the internal conflicts that occur in so much of the developing world. Here is a reading of the film that is more anthropological and explains certain cultural facets of life in a developing country.

First, Nair shows us the absolute squalor and destitute poverty of slum life in Kampala, Uganda, warts and all. Ironically, Nair already had a house there before getting asked to direct the film, so she was familiar with the culture. No detail is spared, from a dirty floor to peeling paint on the wall to litter on the ground. Poverty manifests itself in details, as anyone who has spent time in a developing country (such as India) can attest. Less wealthy countries may not have the “polish” in their construction or materials or goods as they do in the West and other developed countries. A lack of proper facilities, proper sanitation, and even clean water are daily concerns. Phiona is teased by children the first time she goes to play chess because she is smelly and unwashed. This also is a telling incident, for we first see the differences in class even in a developing country– something that Westerners often fail to recognize or be aware of. Class differences are a global phenomenon.

Food is scarce, and Phiona’s family takes turns sacrificing their portions to whoever needs it most. Their mother Harriet is widowed, and she has very little money, which in turn affects how much they can have to eat. However, more than money, integrity matters most: Phiona’s sister Night is a “kept woman” of a questionable wealthier man with a motorbike, of whom their mother strongly disapproves. The money Night is able to bring her family is dirty money, and it is only with great reluctance and in the direst of circumstances that the family takes it. This is a very telling scene, for it shows that human dignity is priceless, even among the poorest of the poor.

Issues of child labor also show a fresh perspective on the difficulty of overcoming obstacles, because this is no mere story of a suburban schoolgirl up against an extracurricular bully. Phiona and her brother Brian are too poor to go to school; instead, their mother puts them to the streets to sell corn (maize). Thus in addition to being poor and completely unfamiliar with the sophistication of chess, Phiona is also illiterate. Even in her preteens, she is barely able to read. Her mother is extremely suspicious of her interest in chess, and expresses her concern to their coach and mentor Robert, for it is taking her away from the necessary work to bring in income to their family. Later, Phiona’s eagerness to learn to read and study is alienating to her mother, who cannot understand what education means, as she is an illiterate woman from a village. These sorts of in-family class differences that arise when someone becomes more educated than their parents or siblings are another issue that many intelligent and/or talented people from developing countries face. Later on in their lives, the exodus of such individuals to countries with more opportunities gets dubbed “brain drain,” as they deplete a nation of the very people who would better it.

Corruption is also neatly folded into the story, for coach Robert has applied for a suitable job to make use of his engineering degree, but his lack of family connections (due to being an orphan) hinders his progress. Same for when he goes to the head of the chess organization to get a chance for his children in the slum of Katwe to compete, and is turned down because he cannot possibly come up with the exorbitantly high sum required to participate. The head is shocked when Robert does indeed deliver, for he has received his bribe.

Finally, one important point to mention is the presence of colonial education in a developing country. Uganda was a colony of Great Britain, and we can see the presence of the elite British style of education when the children go to the chess tournament at a college. But conversely, we also see the presence of missionary education for the poor people, as Phiona’s chess club is at a center founded by missionaries. This raises questions too complex to explore here; however, the film does a good job in hinting at its underlying presence.

Nair’s respectful direction lets the actors carry the story, without an excess of dialogue. Screenwriter William Wheeler was careful not to moralize, but to let the characters speak what is necessary, and then show through action what we need to see and feel. The extreme close-ups, which can be very distracting in some films, work well here, putting us right at the heart of the story and the characters’ lives.

If a Disney film is supposed to teach kids about good values, educate them, entertain them, and open their eyes to new ideas, then “The Queen of Katwe” succeeds hugely. It is a new, global form of Disney magic for the younger generation.