Foreign Aid FAQs – #9 “They’re poor because they’re lazy”

A common attitude nowadays is that people are rich because they work hard and deserve to be wealthy, whereas people are poor because they are lazy, feckless and incapable. Does this idea hold up?

Many people living in developing countries actually work far harder than their counterparts in the developed world. For example, Mexico and Costa Rica have the longest average weekly working hours of the OECD countries at 42.9 and 42.6 hours respectively. Compare this with the average working week in the United States of 34.4 hours, and in the UK of 32.3 hours.[1]

People living in poverty aren’t in that position because they’re too lazy to earn a decent wage. They’re in that position because their national economies aren’t very productive. For example, poor soil quality and a lack of mechanisation in agriculture mean that many farmers in developing countries have to spend many hours performing back-breaking work just to produce enough food to feed themselves and their families, let alone produce a surplus to sell.

Many people living in the world’s poorest countries have no option but to send their children out to do manual labour, just to earn enough money to eat. The idea that these parents are so heartless that they would put their own children through this misery just out of their own laziness is not only offensive but downright ludicrous.

We tend to lose sight of the role that luck plays in our lives. The lottery of birth is still an extraordinarily powerful determinant of how someone’s life will turn out.

Those of us living in rich countries such as the UK benefit from centuries of history and economic development which we had absolutely no part in. It is because of this history that we have effective public institutions, democracy, high quality education and healthcare, comparatively high-paying jobs, etc. A person born in a rich country has a far greater chance of having a good standard of living than if that exact same person had been born in a developing country.

The concept of natural economic justice – that people are rich or poor purely as a result of their own individual talent and effort – is both dangerous and demonstrably false. The world is full of examples of lazy, untalented rich people who are wealthy because of who their parents were; and intelligent, talented, hard-working poor people who, because of circumstances beyond their control, haven’t had the opportunity to improve their lot in life.

The successful American investor Warren Buffett put it well when he expressed humility at the extent to which his own personal talent was responsible for his success:

I personally think that society is responsible for a very significant percentage of what I’ve earned. If you stick me down in the middle of Bangladesh or Peru or someplace, you’ll find out how much this talent is going to produce in the wrong kind of soil. I will be struggling thirty years later. I work in a market system that happens to reward what I do very well – disproportionately well. [2]

It’s important to recognise that how our life turns out is not only a result of our individual skill and effort, but are in large part down to luck. Donating to international development charities and supporting foreign aid to help those living in poverty overseas is, in part, recognition that if the lottery of birth had turned out differently, we could so easily have been in their position ourselves.

[2] Quoted in Ha-Joon Chang, 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism, p. 30.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


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