Home » Big picture

Could one have good quality of life in a poor country?

There was a time, over fifteen years ago, when I did believe that one can have a really good quality of life in a poor country; given that one isn’t poor, of course. This belief had no foundation in experience – only in casually empiricist observation. I had noticed that some of the richest people in the world were from and/or lived in rather poor countries.

Then I came to South Africa for the first time in the mid-1990s – experience and observation changed my beliefs about the possibility to have good quality of life in a generally poor country. Now that I am here again, I am reminded of the extent to which poverty diminishes one’s quality of life even when they have the resources. And we are speaking of poverty on a scale that is rather overwhelming – the state is poor and the overwhelming proportion of the population is poor. Did you know that according to OECD data (2005):

  • 42% of the population are unemployed (this includes the very long term unemployed who sometimes are not included in the statistics)
  • 11% of the population live on less than $1 a day
  • 34% of the population live on less than $2 a day
  • The life expectancy is 45 years (and we live in the 21st century)

At the same time, South Africa is the top exporter of diamonds and gold in the world; it is a lush, fertile country where fruit is abundant and vegetables delicious. Problem is that the economy is still predominantly primary – the diamonds and gold are dug out here but the expensive jewellery is made in the Netherlands (amongst other places). Inequality is probably the biggest problem in South Africa – in regional development, educational levels and income.

How does this affect day-to-day life?


South Africa is one of the least safe places on this Earth; probably on a par with Mexico – though the way in which the two countries are not safe is very different.

We just need to remember that the guy who invented fire blowing car tires is South African and he introduced this invention to deal with a specific problem – hijacking cars at traffic lights. When I was here in the mid-1990s my I was not allowed to step out of my hotel on my own at all – in fact, on my way back I was escorted to the Airport where the driver’s instructions were to see me through passport control and leave only after that.

I thought things may have changed – well, not really. I am stuck in the hotel (the course I am teaching is at the same hotel) and I was told that I could have a walk around if I manage to get together a group of five-six people. But anything less than that is not really safe – and I am not staying in a township but in one of better parts of Pretoria.

Lack of skills

We are not talking advanced competencies here; in fact, most of the people I meet are as versed with technology as, if not more than, me. Where this lack of skills shows is in the little things – it shows in the level of maintenance and in the small things that don’t work.

Lack of trust

This is particularly obvious in matters of finance. Today I went to a nearby shopping centre to buy earphones for my iPhone – yep, this is what I forgot and having to run for hours on a treadmill is not a joking matter; one can watch people swim badly for so long and after that needs to listen to music.

One of the first things I noticed in the Apple shop was a large notice saying that customers need to show a picture ID when paying with a credit card; which is to be expected when there is high crime rate. Thank goodness I had cash – carrying my passport with me is probably one of the last things I’ll consider doing given the high probability of getting mugged.

You just don’t know where you stand in services

What you do when you are booking a hotel (or checking a booking that has been done for you)? You go on the hotel website to check what is on offer right?

This is exactly what I did; and although the hotel was booked for me by the South African organisers of the event I was very pleased to see that it boasts a gym and a swimming pool. ‘Good!’ – I thought – ‘I am in training so I could run in the gym and swim; this may turn out to be really great.’

When I arrived, it turned out that the swimming pool is actually a paddling pool (and nobody paddles in it either) and that there is no gym at the hotel. Next I was told that the gym is 5 minutes away and hotel guests can use it.

In the end, I managed to clarify that the gym is Virgin Active; it is 15 minutes drive away and I have to pay to exercise there.

I was thinking that there may be a case of misleading advertising there. As luck may have it, last night I went to the gym with a young woman who looks after the website and the IT systems of the hotel chain. She promised to change the information so the ones arriving after me are psychologically prepared.

No, one can’t have a good quality of life in a poor country even when they have the resources. And the problems are not simply poverty itself but all the social problems that accompany it. Somehow the cycle of deprivation, lack of education and skills, crime and further poverty (all this going on for generations) ought to be broken.

There is so much potential here but realising it will take a long time.

23 thoughts on “Could one have good quality of life in a poor country?”

    • @Krant: Please do not let this affect you: South Africa is still a fascinating place and a very beautiful one at that. One just has to be careful and drive around rather than walk; possibly hire a local guide.

    • @ Lance: Crime is possible the most serious one. But Africa generally and South Africa specifically also have problem with illiteracy (and education is still one of the main developmental factors) and AIDS (this is where the very low life expectancy comes from).

  1. I have been to plenty of poor countries and some of the happiest people come from there. If happiness is a part of a good quality of life than they might be in a better place than most. BTW CONGRATS ON BECOMING A MEMBER. 🙂

    • @Jai: Thanks, Jai, and I am very pleasewd to hear from you – I’ve been looking at Portrait Inspiration (very nice). 

      You made me think: I have been to Mexico couple of times (for work) and saw quite a bit of poverty there. In fact, I was rather shocked at the slums around Mexico City. Looking at the table of happiness, Mexico rates 18 or so (above the UK) – most countries in South and Latin America, in fact, rate rather high. Interestingly, African countries, rank towards the bottom of the table and are one of the least ‘happy’ places around.

      It seems that poverty is different in Africa somehow; the feeling here is different as well – very hard to explain.    

  2. It entirely depends on what you call a good quality of life. However, in general, I definitely agree that if you are among the few who are fairing well, it would still be hard to enjoy what many consider to be a good quality of life.

    • @Roshawn: I was thinking of quality of life as measured by security (personal and property), health and whether things (social, mechanical and infrastructure) work smoothly. South Africa has problems on all of those counts. Include the fact that traditional social divisions are still around (one of these being racism that goes both ways) and it is a disturbing place.

  3. My ex lives back there now – and one of the deciding factor’s for NOT relocating to be with him was my inability to countenance raising my boy behind bars.

    Most houses (in the affluent areas) are fortresses, and I remember one family member checking that they had put a gun in the car before we went to the local shop!!!!

    Not for me – the boys are growing up here in semi-rural Scotland, they can play outside (OK weather permitting) and we can walk around as a family in safety.

    Balancing that against living with a big house and a pool and a maid …………… well I think on balance we made the right decision. 

    • @Elaine: Today I went to the Museum of Apartheid and the drive took us through parts of Jo-burg. All housed – even relatively modest ones – were behind high fences topped with barbed wire.

  4. I visited Jamaica which is a very poor country by western standards but they were some of the happiest people I have ever met. Quality of life is not necessarily what material things you have but what you make of your circumstances.

  5. That stinks. A friend of ours is currently fired up about retiring in a poorer country. She thinks that her money will go much further, so that means it’s a better place to be. 

    We were talking last week about going to South Africa in a couple of years to run the Comrades. I’d like to see if I can finish one of the great ultra-marathons ever! 

    • @AverageJoe: This is an interesting dilema and probably boils down to development. There are relatively poor coutries (but not extremely poor) that are developed; this means that the health care is good, infrastructure functions and there are no mismatched picture rails because they were started from both sides (not a joke; in 1996 during my first visit to South Africa I took a picture of the pictucture rail in the hotel lobby that was mismatched in the middle by about 20 cm).

      About the ultra-maraton – now you are talking! 

  6. I hear the miner strikes are getting serious down there. I’ve lived and visited in several poor countries in East Asia where the people are very poor, yet struggling to attain western standards as fast as possible.

    Many of us in the west have never seen or experienced true poverty. It is a shock for many and possibly life changing event when it happens. 

  7. @Brent: Yeah, the miner strike is serious but the lorry drivers are on strike as well. Which means that the petrol may become a problem by the weekend.

    And yes, poverty means a different thing here. One realises that it is really shallow to complain that they can’t afford an iPhone! 

  8. I wonder how much is the difference between urban and rural attitudes?  My DIL got really upset when we insisted on walking from a restaurant to our hotel in San Diego a few years ago.

    We were warned that it was not safe to walk round New York after dark – we only met friendliness and  hospitality.

    I’m not saying serious crime doesn’t exist or that all is sweetness and light but I think the culture which allows some people to be in grinding poverty without being willing to change it is bound to have a fear of ‘The Masses’. 

    Such a shame. 

    • @Pat: I hear hwta you are saying – in fact, when I first arrived in Manchester I was warned not to walk around after dark much. Now, I sometimes do but I know where it is relatively safe and where it is not.

      Here, in Jo-burg and Pretoria it is different in scale.

  9. Quality of life can be measured through social indicators such as health, levels of crime, and economic condition. Having problems in all three areas, I think it would be hard to have a good quality of life in South Africa.This post also make me a bit more appreciative of where we live.

  10. My wife and her family are South African. I have visited before and loved the country. In contrast to the crime and slums, it is one of the most beautiful places on earth. Vast gated communities exist to house the upper-class; when inside you forget you are in a dangerous country. Cape Town and the Kruger Park are unreal… I would definitely recommend other to visit!

    • @Savvy Scott: I agree it is stunning – I could see this even though visiting thre times but for business means that I have seen mainly (and not very well) Johannesburg and Pretoria. One thing that always impresses me is the large spaces – for an European used to live in densely populated places this is very interesting.

      I’ll go back with John and our youngest son and explore the beauty of this sad and proud place.


Leave a comment