My father is an engineer by profession. Had he had a choice when he was younger, he might’ve become a professor of physics. He might’ve also been a happier man, having chased his vocation and lived a fulfilling career. Instead, in the year 1973, he had risen from poverty to graduate from one of the most prestigious universities (on a scholarship) and pass the rigorous banking examination (for which only a tiny fraction of the half a million applicants a year qualify) – all to obtain an entry-level position at a bank earning a paltry salary.
Wages were abysmally low back then, before the country opened its markets and invited the foreign investment boom. It didn’t seem possible, and probably wasn’t, for him to chase a career as an academic. He had to support my grandparents and not just financially. He had to do what my grandmother had taught him to do – find freedom through economic independence and mobility.
The economist Amartya Sen believes we have to see individual freedom as a social commitment, as part of any development effort. Without choice, one is not truly free. In a fateful move, my father accepted an overseas scholarship in petroleum engineering, a field he had little interest in. But, at USD 267.67/month, it was nearly four times the amount he would make at a mentally-atrophying position at a bank.
And thus began his long career in Big Oil, an industry whose morals, values and prejudices he does not share. I recall stories of how, for years, he ate but once a day to save enough money to send home to my grandparents.
His lack of choice and sacrifice resulted in the freedom my brother and I have today. It is why I am able to fulfill my dream of a career in social justice, rather than have needed to take the first opportunity that presented itself to me. My parents benefited from globalisation and the neoliberal paradigm. But if you ask them, if you look in their eyes when they speak of their childhood, it’s clear that India was home, and was always meant to remain so. My father had no intention of leaving his country, and only did so out of necessity.
The corporate culture of his industry, rife with bigotry and chauvinism, has done little for him. Accountability stops with their shareholders. As Rose Schneiderman succinctly put it during the Massachusetts textile strike of 1912, “The worker must have bread, but she must have roses too,” appealing for both fair wages and dignity.
Indeed, it appears workers all over the world are continually fighting for marginal economic advances. Much coverage, for example, has been given to the state of the U.S. economy since the Global Financial Crash, which hit the nation in 2007. Pundits report gleefully that over 200,000 jobs were created in a month this year in the United States. With work comes prosperity – or so we always thought. Behind the shiny façade of this headline is the grim truth that many of the Americans nestled inside that figure are working for just above minimum wage (unequivocally not a living wage in the U.S.) at less than $8 an hour. Many work two jobs. Many don’t receive benefits such as healthcare, as companies are not required to provide it to those working casually or part-time.
Neoliberalism operates under the false promise that maximizing financial returns to their shareholders will maximize the wellbeing of all. General Electric recently made hundreds of employees redundant at its most successful branch in Seattle, Washington, in favour of moving the jobs to Texas. There, no trade unions exist, and thus wages can be substantially lower. Their global profit margins already exceed 19%. It’s a turbulent economy, with unstable, part-time and transitory work being counted as gainful employment.
In Australia, meanwhile, unemployment hovers at a credible 5-6%. However, the statistic masks the 105,000 homeless who lack the support to get through whatever pitfalls they have endured, including family violence, substance abuse and financial difficulty. Also unaccounted for are those women able to secure a job who have 19% less purchasing power (or simply ‘power’) due to the gender pay gap, which the Australian Tax Office estimates based on the average taxable income reported for men and women (Irvine, 2016).
Philosopher Thomas Pogge made an indelible mark on my Panglossian outlook (“…when I grow up, I’ll join the United Nations and eradicate poverty!”) when he argued in Politics as Usual that the global injustice of poverty, will remain widespread so long as the wealthy participate in a global governance structure that not only allows it, but needs it: “Existing global institutional arrangements are designed to promote growth not in the global product so much as growth in the affluence of the wealthy elites who dominate international negotiations (Pogge, 2010).”
I am, however, heartened by the rich discourse currently happening around what makes a society happy, recognising that it’s not enough to simply lift people out of material poverty. The debate on the limitations of the predominant commodity-focused perspective—such as measuring developmental progress with indicators such as GDP—gave rise to the recognition that socio-economic development is a complex, multifaceted process. Development scholars and practitioners have repeatedly underlined the fact that poverty alleviation goes well beyond the necessities of material wellbeing.