Why our definition of "normalcy" can be costly for everyone else.
You are not normal. If you are reading these pages, you probably belong to the minority of the world's population that has a steady job, adequate access to social security, and enjoys substantial political freedoms. Moreover, you live on more than $2 a day, and, unlike 860 million others, you can read. The percentage of humanity that combines all of these attributes is minuscule.
You are not normal. If you are reading these pages, you probably belong to the minority of the world’s population that has a steady job, adequate access to social security, and enjoys substantial political freedoms. Moreover, you live on more than $2 a day, and, unlike 860 million others, you can read. The percentage of humanity that combines all of these attributes is minuscule.
According to the World Bank, about half of humanity lives on less than $2 a day, while the International Labour Organization reckons that a third of the available labor force is unemployed or underemployed, and half of the world’s population has no access to any kind of social security. Freedom House, an organization that studies countries’ political systems, categorizes 103 of the world’s 192 nations as either "not free" or "partially free," meaning that the civil liberties and basic political rights of their citizens are limited or severely curtailed. More than 3.6 billion people, or 56 percent of the world, live in such countries.
Statistically, a "normal" human being in today’s world is poor, lives in oppressive physical, social, and political conditions, and is ruled by unresponsive and corrupt government. But normalcy is not only defined by statistics. Normal implies something that is "usual, typical, or expected." Therefore, normal is not only what is statistically most frequent but also what others assume it to be. In this sense, the expectations of a tiny minority trump the realities of the vast majority. There is an enormous gap between what average citizens in advanced Western democracies — and the richer elites everywhere — assume is or should be normal, and the daily realities faced by the overwhelming majority of people. Information about the dire conditions common in poor countries is plentiful and widely discussed. Curiously, however, expectations about what it means to be normal in today’s world continue to reflect the abnormal reality of a few rich countries rather than the global norm.
We assume that it is normal to eat at least three meals a day, to walk the streets without fear, and to have access to water, electricity, phones, and public transportation. Sadly, it is not. Today, 852 million people, including many children and the elderly, do not get three meals a day, and when they do, their meals do not provide them with the daily caloric intake required by a normal person. Roughly 1.6 billion people lack access to electricity, and 2.4 billion rely on traditional fuels such as wood and dung for cooking and heating. Thirty percent of the world’s population has never made a phone call. Street crime and urban violence are normal in most of the world. The average homicide rate in Latin America and the Caribbean is about 25 per 100,000 inhabitants and, in sub-Saharan Africa, it is roughly 18 murders per 100,000. (In the European Union, there are just 3 homicides for every 100,000 inhabitants.) An estimated 246 million children, about 1 in 6, work, and 73 million of them are less than 10 years old. Whereas childbirth is typically an occasion for celebration in high-income countries, it is a source of death, disease, and disability elsewhere. According to the World Health Organization, more than half a million women die every year due to pregnancy-related complications in the developing world, where the risk of maternal mortality is 1 in 61. In rich countries, the risk of maternal mortality is 1 in 2,800.
This distorted perception of what is normal can take on subtler forms. Consider, for example, our common assumptions about the quality of the news we get. We tend to assume that the news is free from government interference. Yet, in most of the world, that is not the case. A World Bank survey of media ownership found that in 97 countries, 72 percent of the top five radio stations and 60 percent of the top five TV companies were state-owned. The study also found strong statistical evidence that countries with greater state ownership of the media have fewer political rights, less developed markets, and strikingly inferior education and health.
Rich-world assumptions about what constitutes the global norm are costly illusions. Billions of dollars have been wasted by assuming that governments in poorer countries are more or less like those in rich ones, only a little less efficient. Despite constant reminders that most governments in the world are unable to perform relatively simple tasks, such as delivering the mail or collecting the garbage, most recipes for how these countries should solve their problems reflect the sophisticated capabilities taken for granted in rich countries, not the realities that exist everywhere else.
We want people to have a better life, and it is natural that our definition of normal serves as a compass for helping others. The gap between what we assume is normal and the reality that billions of people face is driven less by a parochial propensity to impose our experience on others than a sincere expression of our values. Nor should values be abandoned — they are our true north and point us in the direction where progress lies. But our strongly felt ideals must not become the basis for policy. At a time when values have become so common in political discourse, it is important to remain alert to when our advice is built on faulty assumptions about what is normal. When that happens, values lead to bad decisions, not moral clarity.
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