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October 14, 2013 | by  | in Opinion |
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Check Our Privilege

A New Zealand birth is nearly the apex of early-life outcomes. You don’t get one of those cot-boxes with bedding and baby clothes like in Finland, but birth into relative wealth and safety can’t be far off the jackpot. Admittedly, Aotearoa has one of the highest rates of inequality in the OECD, but the 99 per cent live well relative to the global poor. Discontent from changes to industrial law are great examples—attacks on collective bargaining and meal breaks hurt our poorest, but our poorest are relatively lucky to have minimum protections anyway. Many countries have no minimum wage, and almost every minimum rate is lower than our own. Even queer women of colour are incredibly privileged if they live in Aotearoa rather than in the developing world. Why, then, is first-world privilege not critiqued and checked by city liberals as often or as publicly as cis-gendered manhood, heterosexuality, or whiteness? I think it’s because effectively checking class privilege impacts us economically in a way that checking identity privilege might not—donations and aid burn your pocket, while opening borders is (erroneously) thought to cost jobs and weaken culture. We don’t want to discuss First World privilege in case we realise our token attempts at donations and refugee quotas make us more flake than ally.

The First World is obliged to empower the global poor to live their conception of the good life. We should care about development and the poverty trap just as much as we do about gender and its plethora of implications. An example: feminism has moved to stand with women of colour and poor women. When WINZ payment cards allegedly blocked purchasing pads, feminists were especially outraged. Why then isn’t New Zealand’s mainstream feminism more perceptibly outraged at the plight of women in poverty globally? Or am I just not noticing it?

And is being outraged enough? Talk is cheap; so is Twitter. Neither does much for the global poor. I think two things help the worst-off globally. Firstly, you can give them stuff. I’m not a development economist, so I can’t say what. Like Christmas presents, money’s probably a safe option. Anything on Givewell.org‘s list is better than giving to World Vision or Oxfam because transparency. The big thing here is that you give more than just a token amount. Making a token attempt to address rape culture, homophobia or racism counts for very little. Likewise, giving a few dollars to your mate’s ‘Live Below the Line’ is fuck all. Privileged Kiwi students might like to consider donating their course-related costs. Does 1G seem extreme? Not in comparison to your luck in life not to earn just that much year-on-year. The new laptop can wait. So can sinking piss. My favourite part of this is that it undermines nationalist government policy that prioritises New Zealanders’ uni years over a half-decent aid budget. A friend pointed out, reading my draft, that charitable behaviour acts as a “band-aid” and impedes other important critiques—whom, for example, do we harm with our demand for a new iPhone? I appreciate her point, but I disagree. I don’t think capitalism has created global poverty. Instead, it’s created middle-class jobs, providing a path out of poverty for economies as a whole. It’s institutions within those economies that are lacking if the poorest remain poor despite overall growth. Further, it’s important to consider the costs of improvements. Tithing some income means I have to cut consumption in general, which might be more achievable than never purchasing consumer electronics which I strongly demand. Obviously, it pays to be mindful of the flow-on impacts of our purchases, but I note that even really ‘extreme’ social-justice people own and enjoy mass-manufactured goods. Perhaps what’s important is to negotiate a balance between the two approaches.

The other imperative is opening our borders when our closest neighbours are closing theirs. Most favoured-nation statuses under free-trade agreements should be abandoned in favour of looser restrictions for all. This isn’t to say we should relentlessly push our products in developing markets, because that’s a great way to crush local industries. But it’s ugly nationalism to protect our imports from international competition, especially if the competitors are from developing countries.

The other side of the open-borders coin is immigration restrictions. They prevent people from seeking a better life out of an attempt to protect our privileged position as beneficiaries of a good economy and a safety net. Eliminating them, or at least weakening them, directly benefits the poor who get to come here. It also relieves the state’s burden in developing countries—a few fewer mouths to feed. If individuals can shop for governments as for goods, the market can pressure governments to do better for their mobile citizenry. Maybe improvements to institutions and civil society would filter through to benefit those who can’t easily afford to leave. Better still if we can find ways to make journeys safer and cheaper and reduce the risk that prospective refugees have to take on. If we can mobilise the poorest, then perhaps apathetic or malintentioned governments will have to give their worst-off people more reason to stay.

TL;DR: the lottery of birth affects lots of factors. An acknowledgement of this shouldn’t be First World–centric. That said, looking abroad shouldn’t blind us to structural oppression at home. Fortunately, as my friend pointed out, humans have the capacity to multi-task.

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