I’m back from Guatemala and free of Malaria, Typhoid Fever, and Hepatitis. I’ll never know if I was exposed to any of these or if it was the cocktail of vaccines I took that staved off illness, but I stand by my prevention strategy and would do it again!
Although the stunning landscapes are romantic, I am reminded that the people of Guatemala live with the threats of these diseases without the privilege of prevention. In Guatemala, the Canadian standard of well-being is imaginary and it seems even our GDPs (Gross Domestic Product) prove that.
As citizens of a wealthy country, we often point to the long-held belief that people in poor countries are happier. It is comforting to imagine that our wealth would not make life better – perhaps we feel a little less guilty about our unfettered access to clean water, abundant food, advanced education, and one of the world’s best public healthcare systems – but it seems we are deluding ourselves.
Invited by Freakonomics authors Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner to blog on their website, economists Justin Wolfers and Betsey Stevenson dispel this myth. Rich countries are in fact happier than poor countries. You can also listen to why philosopher and Professor of Law, Martha Nussbaum, would choose to live in Finland given her druthers.
It might be tempting to take on a neo-liberalist attitude, resting assured that the free market will allow Guatemalans to pull themselves up by the bootstraps… if they work hard enough.
But, how hard do Guatemalan children have to work before earning the right to education? Education is a service encapsulated within the GDP, but so are the products moved by child labour.
And, how deep into Guatemala’s rainforest must campesinos (peasant farmers) push before they can feed their families? When measured by the GDP, the Environment is a resource that is best exploited and resource depletion is in no way accounted for.
Huge plantations in the hands of an elite few displace peasant farmers, leaving them no choice but to plant small subsistence crops up the hillsides. Not only does this impact the country’s rainforests, but also the very fertility of the soil that sustains them. On the steep slopes – at some places farmers must tie themselves off while tending their crops – soil is unstable and prone to erosion. Burning dried forest material replaces the soil’s nutrients that are lost by felling the forests but also pollutes the air normally “cleaned” by the felled forests – a vicious cycle.
GDP is the net outcome of exploiting a country’s human and natural resources. Whether health, poverty, gender equality, life expectancy, literacy, air quality,disaster resilience, maternal health, or threats to endangered species are improving or deteriorating, all of these aspects of well-being are masked by what Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz calls our GDP fetish.
Alternative indicators of well-being are emerging rapidly and the United Nations Human Development Programme has assembled the results, whichGoogle has also made available in the form of a convenient online comparison tool. Canada’s Earth Summit Coalition wants the Canadian Government to recognize the weaknesses of the GDP, and support “development of a global standard that measures our social welfare and happiness, as well as the health of our natural environment.”
Equating economic growth with progress is outdated. Human and environmental welfare is a right, but also a global responsibility. Human Development Indicators are painting a detailed picture that the GDP continues to blur.
Ignorance is no longer an excuse.
*Originally posted February 2012 at wecanada.org
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