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Is the First World the new Third World?

By Pallavi Aiyar
July 04, 2009 14:26 IST
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The quality of services in the West makes you want to think this is so, but just one breath of the clean air there reminds you of the chasm that separates our two worlds.

Excusez-moi, ici c'est pour les arrivees ou les departs?" </I>I turned towards the man who had asked the question. "Sorry I don't speak French but this is arrivals," I said, taking a stab at an answer.

The exchange was over in less than a couple of minutes, but long enough for the man's 'colleague' to steal my handbag and laptop from the airport trolley I'd placed them in, while my back was turned.

"Welcome to Brussels," said a disheveled-looking cop when I was finally able to speak to someone at the airport police station an hour later. Having just spent 10 hours in a flight with a seven-month-old baby and two traumatised cats, the added wait to file a report was almost unbearable. "You're lucky you only lost a wallet and a laptop," the cop said chattily.

"Does this happen often?" I asked. "Oh! Several times a day," he replied. "What can we do? It's these North Africans!"

The fact that several such robberies took place everyday in an airport fully-equipped with security cameras struck me as having more to do with the incompetence of the police than North Africans but I kept my opinions to myself.

After almost seven years in China, my first morning in Brussels, the 'heart of Europe', was a sobering one. Over the next few weeks, I learnt several lessons vis-à-vis the developed and developing worlds.

Lesson one

When a stranger asks you a question in the developed world, you should either knee him in his privates or walk away quickly in the other direction.

"Ah! You fell for the question trick," clucked the taxi driver when we were finally on our way into town after having had filed the police report. "In Brussels remember to never answer a question from a stranger."

I remembered the numerous times in Beijing when I'd turned to strangers for help. Despite my imperfect Chinese, I had always met with kind, helpful responses that involved neither violence nor silence. But, of course, that was in the developing world.

Lesson two

It's virtually impossible to buy anything in the developed world if you work. We had arrived in Brussels on a Sunday to discover that shops close on the Sabbath with a religious fervour. They also closed on weekdays at 6 pm with a 9 am start, so that Saturdays are the sole day in the week when one can buy anything.

I thought of China where the local corner shop in the hutong (alleyway) I used to live in basically never closed. The owner slept in the back room and was always willing to wake up to sell a pack of biscuits with a smile, regardless of the time.

On week nights, department stores were open till 10 pm and for the retail industry the whole point of Sundays was to be able to sell to consumers when they had the time to buy. But, of course, that was in the developing world.

Lesson three

In the developing world, what people really want is the opportunity to work; what people in the developed world really want is the opportunity to holiday. My husband's new Brussels-based job was to have begun on Friday, May 1.

We discovered the date was a holiday to celebrate Labour Day so his first day at work was pushed forward to May 4.

A few days later, we called the moving company to inquire about an air shipment expected that week, only to be told that since Thursday, May 21 was Ascension Day (and another holiday), the government had given everyone the 22nd off as well to make it a 4-day weekend.

We couldn't really expect any news of our luggage till afterwards they said and, in any case, the agent in charge of our file was off snorkelling in Egypt. Finally our package arrived yet another long weekend later following the holiday for Whit Monday on June 1.

My thoughts went back to China again where the government had recently reduced the number of days off for Labour Day celebrations from three to one. But, of course, that was in the developing world.

Lesson four

There exists a strange disconnect in the developed world between the offer of money and the provision of services. The first time I called a gardener in Brussels with the offer of regular employment of sprucing up our garden, the gentleman in question informed me that his services did not include cutting the grass.

The second gardener I contacted agreed to mow the lawn but only in September (after the month-long holiday he was taking in August).

I was not alone in my suffering. A British friend told me of the time he offered a delivery-man from Ikea an extra Euro50 to help carry some furniture into his home.

After some persuasion the man agreed and told my friend to go inside the home and wait. My friend obliged only to discover that the delivery-man had driven off in his van without the extra Euro50, leaving all the furniture on the road.

Unsurprisingly, a couple of months in the developed world have left my memories of 'developing' China bathed in sepia-tinted nostalgia.

I look back longingly to the days when I could pick up strawberry Haagen-Dazs ice cream at the local supermarket at 8 pm, answer the queries of strangers without the fear of being robbed and have a gardener who agreed not only to mow the grass but to do so the next day.

So would it be fair to say that the First World is the new Third World? In many ways, the answer appears to be yes, until you take a deep breath. Brussels' clean, almost fragrant, air is a stark reminder of the chasm that continues to separate the First and Third World.

Lesson five

What differentiates the developed and developing world today is clean air, safe water and equitable access to quality healthcare.

Many of the traditional demarcations between the North and the South no longer apply. Gone are the days when life in India or China meant a life without Toblerone chocolate and well-stitched jeans.

It is quicker today to have a phone installed in Beijing than Brussels. But while calling China a 'hardship' posting for European diplomats is in part symptomatic of the conceited insularity of Europe, the cold fact is that the average Chinese lives a full decade less than her European counterpart (the average Indian two decades less).

According to the Global Alliance Against Chronic Respiratory Diseases, CRDs account for 17 per cent of all deaths in China compared to less than 4 per cent of deaths in Europe.

Around 90 per cent of deaths due to chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases like bronchitis and emphysema globally occur in the developing world.

For all the developing world's many achievements in recent decades, until effective steps are taken to improve the environment and healthcare, the title of the 'first world' remains safely with the West notwithstanding reluctant gardeners and incompetent policemen.

The author, Business Standard's Brussels correspondent, recently moved to Europe after more than six years in China.

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