POOR AND RICH COUNTRIES
we could learn
from Jordan and Cuba
I'm in Jordan for a conference and I asked a friend who works for the ministry of planning and international co-operation what she remembered about her time in England (studying for a master's). She said: "Homeless people. There are no homeless people in Jordan." Walking around Jerash (just north of Amman, site of the largest Roman ruins outside Italy), I saw that what she said is true.
It is by no means the first time someone has told me of their surprise at seeing so many homeless people in England.
People from poor countries tend to assume that rich countries will have solved such social problems. But the reverse is true. According to a 2007 survey by York University's centre for housing policy, homelessness was found to be increasing in Sweden, Canada, the US, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. The rate remains stable in Australia, and England and Germany were the only countries studied where falls in homelessness were apparent.
According to the survey, "economic transition [from socialism] has brought a degree of social disruption, and homelessness has emerged as an issue to be tackled" in Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary.
A 2008 assessment of homeless in the US found there to be about 400,000 homeless people in the country, 30% of whom are defined as "chronic homeless".
there are no homeless people, Jordan and Cuba
– perhaps you will know of other examples.
Both are countries with serious problems, economic
and social. But they have managed to avoid this
particular assault on our collective dignity."
There are few forms of poverty worse that homelessness. Any hardship or challenge is best borne together with others, in family or community. In fact, hardship can bring communities together, bringichallenge is best borne together with others, in family or community. In fact, hardship can bring communities together, bringing out the best in the human spirit. It is a mistake to view poor people with pity, when they are often happier than affluent people. But there is no dignity in homelessness, in loneliness, in desperation and begging.
I have worked with street children in Medellín, Guatemala City and Kolkata. What they lacked most was not opportunity, safety and food, but family, friends and community. Allowing children to live on the street is the ultimate sign of societal failure, both moral and managerial. And yet homeless children are not just a poor-world phenomenon. According to a 2007 report by the European Federation of National Organisations Working with the Homeless, child homelessness is "slowly emerging as a problem in Europe, but will most likely increase if measures are not rapidly taken to counter this phenomenon".
I have now visited two countries where there are no homeless people, Jordan and Cuba – perhaps you will know of other examples. Both are countries with serious problems, economic and social. But they have managed to avoid this particular assault on our collective dignity. It would be worth reflecting on why, and what other countries can learn.
The reasons for homelessness are complicated – both structural and individual. My initial assumption, would be that in Jordan (and possibly elsewhere in the Middle East) a strong family culture will not allow homelessness. Cultural lessons are some of the hardest for other countries to learn, but this implies that countries adopting policies to encourage employment and economic growth should be careful not to also encourage family and community breakdown.
In Cuba, culture cannot be the reason for zero homelessness. In all other Latin countries, with similar cultures, homelessness is a grievous problem. I assume that Cuba's economic model keeps indigence to a minimum, and that a strong state response efficiently mops up any stragglers.
When I have written before about poor countries that have something to teach the rest of the world, including wealthier countries, some comments have been defensive. "I would prefer to live in England than in Jordan," comes the cry. But that is not the point. This is not a competition, nor does highlighting success in one area of social development mean disregarding major problems in another.
Homelessness is one of the most tragic forms of poverty, and it blights rich countries as much as poor ones. It is one of a growing number of social and economic problems that belie the separation of the world into developed and developing. We are all developing, and we all have lessons to learn from other cultures and countries.