The Hurricane Katrina disaster in New Orleans, USA, shed new light on the nature of poverty in the rich world, writes Jeremy Seabrook. "Survival in America depends totally upon money. Even the poorest people in Bangladesh, Niger, Brazil or India are not poor in the same way ... the urban poor in Dhaka, Mumbai, Nairobi and Lagos still build their own shelters, create their own livelihoods, seek out their own fuel and grow food on any small parcel of land they can find. The poor in America do not have the wherewithal to participate in a society constructed on the assumption that all human needs, wants and comforts must be brought in from the market. Nothing is grown, made, invented or created by the people for themselves and for others." Please read on ...
People in India often ask me whether poverty exists in the West. I tell them it is widespread. They accept the truth of this, but look puzzled. They find it hard to reconcile the ubiquitous imagery of abundance and luxury from the West with what they know of poverty as they experience it--the emaciation of extreme want. Do people labour in the fields for less than a day's wage? Do they suffer hunger? Must they work 16 hours a day? Do they send their children to work? Must they wait till evening for the money that enables them to eat?
No, it isn't like that. Poverty in the West is, assuredly, a violent visitation. But it has a different face from the poverty of India. It is hard to describe, to those who have never been out of India, the face of poverty in the richest societies in the world. The effects of Hurricane Katrina have made it easier to explain, since it has demonstrated to everyone the nature of exclusion and resourcelessness in a country whose prodigious wealth inspires both envy and desire in the peoples of the earth.
For the waters that swept through New Orleans did more than inundate a beautiful and historic city. Among the debris of buildings, stores, churches, casinos, factories and fields, a human wreckage was deposited on the desolate streets. A majority of those unable to flee the city and the victims of success, the failures and losers of a competitive, individualistic society which chooses to dwell only on achievement, celebrity and glory and to hide away its hopeless and the disappointed in the cellars and attics of forgetting: from which they were brutally flushed out by the raging waters of the Gulf [of Mexico].
Rarely had they been...