One of my greatest hopes for this trip is that I would get a little bit more insight into the lives, opportunities, and challenges of people in developing nations (I hate the 3rd world moniker). I think I now understand vastly more than I did but I’ve only just touched the tip of the iceberg. Most people in developing nations that we encountered thought that Americans were walking bags of cash, and it got pretty annoying after a while. While most Americans don’t have as much disposable cash as imagined, our life style is richer than most people in developing nations can understand. Not infrequently, people would ask us questions about what America was like that illustrated this (like “does America have a lot of paved roads?”). Over the course of our trip, I compiled a list of benefits we enjoy as residents in the US that we frequently take for granted. Here’s that list with some commentary:

  1. Availability of credit: This is a huge one. People talk about our massive dependence on, and abusive of, the consumer credit system in the US. It’s a problem. But ever wonder where we’d be without it? In many of the poorest countries, consumer credit is either non-existent or in infancy. Especially in Cameroon and Bolivia, there are essentially no credit facilities – no credit cards, which means no credit history, which means no way a lender can qualify you for a car, home, or small business loan. Even in some of the more developed nations like Egypt and Turkey, systems to provide mortgages to consumers are still immature. The lack of easy credit facilities provides an immense roadblock to entrepreneurs on any scale as well as to individuals who would like to buy a car, pay for an education, or make some other investment in their lives.
  2. Lack of ethnic conflict: This is a biggish one. I had an epiphany on my trip regarding the uniqueness of the US in the world with regard to ethnic conflict. The vast majority of nations on the earth are either ethnically homogenous, or are comprised of a number of clearly defined ethnic groups. In many of those nations, the nation is a relative newcomer on the scene and individuals think of themselves first in terms of their ethnic group and only secondarily as a member of their nation. This situation frequently leads to bloody conflict. Many of Iraq’s problems stem from this circumstance, as did the war in the Balkans, as has the bloodshed in most African conflicts. It’s a real problem in many nations. But in the USA, we have very little ethnic conflict. Yes… there is some racial tension, but it’s not the kind that leads to war and it seems to improve with every generation. The reason? 99% of the population of the US is non-indengenous. We are all immigrants who have decided at some level to break ties with our native ethnic groups and join a new nation.
  3. A developed highway system: Today, we take the superb US Interstate system, and the billions it took to build, largely for granted. Four of the seven nations we visited had paved roads between 2-4 major cities, with dirt roads everywhere else. Besides the comfort factor, dirt roads means that the road system – and the associated areas of the economy – can essentially be shut down during extended inclement weather. It’s a massive inhibitor to the economies of these nations. Remember that nearly every physical thing you buy sits on a truck before it gets to you.
  4. Drinking Water: The US has has potable drinking water from the tap for a long time and I hardly think about it at all. In contrast, you may safely drink the tap water in only two of the seven countries we visited. To get potable water for drinking or cooking, you have to buy bottled water at roughly $1 for a 1.5L bottle (price was mostly consistent everywhere). Often the very poor people can’t afford the water on a regular basis and so use unsafe water and assume the associated consquences.
  5. Relatively uncorrupt government officials: We do hear from time to time about a bribed congressman or some similar corruption, but governmental corruption is a pervasive hope-sucking reality in at least 5 of the 7 countries we visited. People in these countries see multi-million dollar bribes going to a handful of wealthy government-connected officials, they get regularly harassed by the underpaid police who learn bribery from their bosses and bosses bosses, and all this trickles down to the cab driver who will blatantly take a naïve tourist for all he can. This is a difficult thing to change in a country without a functional democracy and it was clear to us that this is one of the single biggest obstacles to progress in developing countries.
  6. Health care availability: Everyone knows we have, for the most part, excellent doctors in the US and a broken healthcare system. But in a lot of places there’s virtually no healthcare system. If you get a life threatening illness in rural Cameroon (appendicitis for example), chances are pretty good that you’re going to die.
  7. Affordable motorized transport: In all countries that we visited, the majority of working adults cannot afford motorized transport. This has a myriad of implications. In Cameroon, a significant economic boom occurred in the major cities when a Chinese company started selling an ultra-cheap 100cc motorcycle. It meant that people could commute on a low-cost two-wheeled taxi service to a job further away than they could ride a bike, it practically revolutionized inter-business trading and supply chains, and even the rural villages gained some freedom from mercernary middle-men by purchasing a village motorcycle for trips into town.
  8. Care for the disabled: I believe the US spends over 2 bilion each year educating our disabled. Billions more are spent on medical care, job-training programs, and other services. We have laws that force most critical services to accommodate those with common disabilities. Most of the countries we visited don’t have even the vestiges of a welfare system for the severely disabled. If you’re disabled, and you don’t have a family is willing to support you, your future is clear. You beg or starve. In many of the cities, we saw many beggars where overwhelming pity and overwhelmingly incredulity at the person’s plight competed for sympathies. Especially in Africa, the multitude of victims of the various conflicts have left them without multiple limbs, pieces of their faces, and other disabilities and no options but to beg.
  9. Oversight agencies: These city, state, and federal groups often get a bad rap, but when you’ve been in a country that doesn’t have them, you quickly miss them. A sampling of a few that we missed on our trip – agencies to oversee taxi cab standards, inspection service to qualify food providers, a functional non-bribable building inspection agency.
  10. Modern sewer system: Several of the places we visited had open sewers, and most had sewer systems that couldn’t accommodate toilet paper (i.e. tissue go in the trash, not the toilet).
  11. Garbage collection/litter policies: People in most of the countries we visited casually throw trash away on the streets. Often, garbage cans can’t even be found which leads to areas of town that are big, and disgusting, unofficial garbage dumps. There was pretty much garbage everywhere, even in places that are supposed to be pristine like national parks. Almost every city in the US is clean compared to almost every place we visited on our trip.
  12. Appliances: In four of five of the countries we visited, only a few in upper class owned appliances including a refrigerator/freezer, microwave, washing machine, or dish washing machine.
  13. Consumer businesses that can provide change for medium-size bills: I’m not sure how much of a problem this is for locals, but it was very frustrating for us. In the poorer countries, we were often unable to buy something because the smalltime vendor didn’t have enough spare cash to provide change for a mid-level bill.

Having listed several deficiencies I observed compared to the US, there’s a few areas where we’ve actually taken a step back compared to most of these countries. Here’s two on my list that were humorously encapsulated in about two sentences by a Fijian lady we talked to who had visited Tokyo and been overwhelmed by it.

  1. Friendliness: This is huge. In several countries we visited such as Thailand and Fiji, it is the custom to wave and greet strangers that you encounter on a road. Everyone knows their neighbors and most of their neighborhood. People still hitchhike regularly. When I would tell people that in the US people frequently don’t know their neighbors, or that we don’t greet each other on the street, they would ask “Why”? I don’t have a good answer, but it’s clearly something we’ve lost.
  2. Hurriedness: The first thing that the lady from Fiji noticed in Tokyo was that everyone seemed to always be in a hurry. I laughed because if there’s anyone I know that exemplifies this, it’s me. I think it’s true that we hurry too much. I’m proud that America has a reputation for one of the hardest-working countries on the planet, but I think we frequently take our work more seriously than we take the rest of our lives and that’s not so good. I know it’s a cliche, but it’s true that not many people die wishing they’d spent more time at the office. I’m going to do my best to try to allow myself time to live a little more from now on.

One other thing I should mention – in all but two places that we visited (Ecuador and Fiji), when we asked our guide agency whether they saw a lot of Americans, the answer was no. Europeans and Asians were generally more common visitors than Americans with the British among the most ubiquitous travelers. I think there are several reasons for this – the relative lack of vacation time Americans get compared to Europeans, the declining dollar, and a relative sense of isolation from the rest of the world compared to most other nations. I’m sure there are others. But if you can afford time- and money-wise to travel to non-G7 countries, I strongly encourage it. There’s so much to learn from doing it that can’t really be learned or experience from inside our borders.

I’ll post Fiji (which will be my last vacation post) in a couple days.

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