Guess what? Progress is messy

Federal Troops Occupy Mare Favela Ahead of World CupBloomberg recently published an interesting article about Dembore Silva, a young Brazilian slum-dweller, and his uniquely entrepreneurial plans for the upcoming World Cup:

The 26-year-old is renting his studio apartment in Brazil’s biggest slum for the month-long duration of the soccer World Cup that ends July 13. He’s expecting to collect 4,000 reais ($1,719)… He plans to use the cash to buy a motorbike to supplement his income of 1,500 reais a month by ferrying people up to Rocinha, a hillside district of 70,000 that overlooks some of Rio’s beaches. “I could make an extra 1,000 reais if I had a bike.”

Silva’s plan isn’t just a cute World Cup story. It captures an important truth about development, which is that for many of the world’s poor, the path towards a more dignified quality of life is often paved with messy, uncomfortable choices.

This truth often gives us in the developed world a feeling of shock and guilt. It should: Basically, this young man plans to vacate his own home so that a rich tourist from abroad can drink, party and watch soccer, probably spending way more in a few weeks than what Silva makes in an entire year. Of course, by developing country standards Silva’s story is pretty tame; for many others, the choices are much more heartbreaking.

Like I touched upon in a blog post last year, the uncomfortable truth is that this is how economic progress happens. Specifically, people in poor countries seek to invest in themselves or in their children towards reaching a better life, even if the path between point A and point B is less than ideal. In this case, 1) a young man thinks about ways to raise his income; 2) he concludes that he needs a motorbike to boost his tourism business; 3) he decides that in order to fund this investment he’ll need cash (he can’t just walk into a bank, silly); and 4) World Cup!

I bring this up because I’ve encountered dozens of well-meaning, morally conscious individuals — many of them Baha’is — who seem to think it’s best to block these types of choices from happening, I guess because they find those choices repugnant. It’s highly commendable to desire to live in a world in which this doesn’t happen, but to respond to such a desire by actually taking away choices isn’t productive. Along the way towards declaring “No more sweatshops!”, we tend to ignore an obvious fact: Some poor lady in the developing world has it so bad in life, her alternatives so dismal, that she actually chooses to spend 12 hours a day in a poorly-ventilated room sowing buttons onto dress shirts.

Our goal as a human race should be to expand and improve the choices available to the world’s poor, not to limit them. For instance, had Silva lived in a place with properly functioning financial markets, he could have simply borrowed the 4,000 reais and paid off the loan with his increased income, with the bank taking on the risk that the borrower can’t pay back the loan. This is a basic economic tool that’s regrettably out of reach for many in the developing world, and there are numerous efforts — most notably the microfinance movement — underway to try and solve the problem.

But for a young man living in the slums, there’s no bank around the corner standing ready to make everything that easy. There are lots of people in the development field working on this, but right now the reality is that we’re just not there yet. Meanwhile, the World Cup comes around only once in a lifetime, and so does the opportunity to cash in on a tourist desperate for a place to stay. It’s all well and good to lament the existence of slums in the first place, and even better to try and do something about it. But for now, the slum dweller eager to sacrifice, work, and invest his way to a better life deserves our admiration, as well as a simple promise to stay out of his way.

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