Poverty and Wealth, Side by Side

Masala Bou wrote an interesting post about wealth and poverty in India and her reactions to it. Her experience reminded me of my own in Nepal, and these last few days, I’ve been trying to understand and tease out my own reactions to wealth and poverty.

According to The World Bank, Nepal is the poorest country in South Asia. I’ve read a number of different statistics about the percentage of people living in poverty, and they seem to vary a bit, but from what I can tell, between 30 and 40 percent of people in Nepal live below the international poverty line, which means they live on less than $1.25 a day. The problem with this definition of poverty is that it’s a little bit arbitrary, as many thresholds are, and it ignores the fact that quality of life does not necessarily go down with decreased income. A lot of the people that would fall under the poverty line in Nepal are subsistence farmers who grow what they eat and don’t need much money to survive on or even live well. For about a month two years ago, I stayed with a Sherpa farming family a rural area of Nepal that practiced subsistence farming. Although they also had a small lodge for trekkers that brought in some money, and the husband in that family was a teacher for part of the year, they had a very small income. I’m not sure if they would fall under the international poverty line, but they were quite poor by Western standards, and I met with other families living in the village who definitely did fall under the international poverty line. But were these people really poor? When I think of poverty, I think of destitution and squalid conditions, but this family was definitely not living in that type of situation. They had a comfortable house, they owned land and always had enough to eat.

But there are a lot of people in Nepal who do live in much worse conditions and don’t have land or houses of their own. The poverty that you see is a strange and disturbing contrast to the wealth that’s also present in Nepal. I’ve met Nepali businessmen here who have done tremendously well and are richer than anyone I know in the US. They build expansive houses and buy cars worth hundreds of thousands of dollars (with Nepali tax included). And then right outside the gate to their house, there’s a man sleeping on the street.

The disparity in wealth, the gap between the rich and poor, as far as I can tell, is growing in Nepal. I just saw the documentary Inside Job about the people largely responsible for the irresponsible lending in the US that led to the recession. Definitely see it if you haven’t. Not only was it fascinating, it also made me angry as hell. The greed of these powerful people have connections not only on Wallstreet but also in DC just blows my mind. The film notes the growing wealth gap in the United States, a disparity that I’ve heard is increasing in other parts of the world as well.

Shortly after I arrived in Nepal, I wrote this post about the economic innovation happening here, and as I reread it now, I can see how excited I was when I published that post. It is exciting; people are doing creative things, starting successful businesses, changing the country. But somehow I feel more wary of the whole thing than I did back then.

I’ve been thinking about my wariness and trying to figure out why I’m feeling that way, and I think it has to do with my upbringing in the US. I grew up on the American Dream. The idea is that if you have the smarts and can just work hard enough, you can make it. You can get an education, have your house and car, go on vacation. There’s this idea that success is purely based hard work and smarts, not where you grew up or who you know or who your parents know. Of course it’s a lie and intellectually I know this but I think I still wanted to believe in that meritocracy and not just in the US but in Nepal too. And then I came here and realized on more than just an intellectual level that the world doesn’t work that way.

What has shocked me in Nepal is just how much who you know matters. Occasionally you hear stories here of people rising up, working hard and using their smarts to start companies and make lots of money, but it’s almost never as simple as that. I always knew this but to really understand it on an emotional and experiential level is different.

Living in Nepal has put both poverty and wealth in perspective for me, but also confused me a bit. While living here, I’ve felt both incredibly rich and really poor. I feel wealthy because I look around and see people sleeping on the streets and know that I have warm place to go home to and three square meals a day; I feel really grateful for that. But I feel financially poor thinking about how little I’m making every month. As far as Nepali salaries go, it’s not bad at all, and I feel grateful to have a job and a steady income, but in comparison to American salaries, it’s very little. Although we don’t have to pay rent (because we live with Tri’s family), we end up spending a lot on groceries, clothing and our car, more than we probably would in the US. It’s quite strange that we have to spend so much on these things, but food here has become very expensive (as I’ve heard is also happening in other places around the world), and there are few clothing sales or second hand stores that sell things cheaply, so we pay a premium price for clothes. On the salaries that we have, there’s no way that we could buy a house for many many years to come, even with meticulous savings. Because a lot of people feel like the salaries paid to workers aren’t enough, if they have the resources, they’re turning to business to make money. And it’s great if you are able to be successful at that, but for those who aren’t, it can be difficult.

Before I came to Nepal, I wanted to keep open the possibility of settling and making a life here. But over the last few months, I’ve felt more and more like that would be near impossible for us. If we couldn’t eventually (in the years to come) make some kind of business venture work, then there’s no way we’d have enough funds to live the lives we’d want to live, buy a house, keep our car, travel back to the US to visit, save for retirement. Right now, we’re doing okay. We’re young and don’t need much to live on and even though we’re not making much, it doesn’t matter. I didn’t come to Nepal to make money; I came to be with Tri’s family, learn more about Nepal and its culture, improve my Nepali, and figure out myself out a bit. But when considering the future, it would be very hard for me to feel financially secure in Nepal. So we’ve pretty much closed the possibility of settling here. I always want to make Nepal part of my life, and I dream of the day that we might be able to spend part of the year in Nepal, maybe a few months during the summer. But for now, we plan to go back to the US, probably in another year or so.