In a recent Salon.com article, “Look at the stats: America resembles a poor country,” writer CJ Werlemen likens America to a Third World nation. Having spent the last three-plus years in developing countries, I feel this deserves comment. I don’t want to undermine the author’s points on America’s many problems, and Werlemen’s recommendations are well-considered. But the writer may not realize what he is saying when he suggests that the U.S. “looks like a broken banana republic.”
The term “banana republic” is often used to describe countries that export primary goods, e.g. bananas, and the name implies that another country has intervened sufficiently in the “republic’s” governance to control those primary resources, keeping costs low, usually by installing an accommodating dictator. This did in fact happen in Indonesia, which for decades had a dictator supported by Western governments. Suharto not only robbed the nation blind — outright stealing an estimated $15 billion to $35 billion — he left a lasting culture of fear and silence that restrained the country’s cultural development. Today, Indonesia’s economy remains overly dependent on primary-resource extraction of petroleum, timber and palm oil. Such an economy inhibits social mobility while a few at the top get rich. It also threatens to leave a barren landscape in place of the world’s third-largest area of existing rainforest with little human development to show for it. Simply because the U.S. is now home to one IKEA factory and various car plants, it is far from a banana republic, as Werlemen argues. To make such a suggestion undermines both the United States’ successes and the struggle that people of developing nations engage in to improve their own governments.
Werlemen claims that America’s level of food insecurity is on par with developing countries “like Indonesia.” That is simply not true. Werlemen is right to note that the U.S. food system is broken: With poor controls on animal farming, excessive subsidies, and limited access to nutritious foods in poor neighborhoods, it is below par for developed countries. I agree that better social services and a curb on the influence of major farm and food corporations should be implemented, and improving employment rates and increasing wages towards those of Northern Europe, as the author suggests, are also necessary goals. To compare those problems to those of Indonesia, however, hyperbolically exaggerates the scope of the problems.
Malnutrition is one of them. While the US struggles with obesity, Indonesia faces a surprisingly high rates of stunting. When children are stunted — that is, when they are below an accepted height for their age due to undernourishment, a symptom of food insecurity — they are disadvantaged from the start, as their immune systems, organs and cognitive functions fail to develop properly. In Indonesia, 39 percent of all children under the age of 5 are stunted. In the United States, the percentage is so small (less than 2 percent) that it is no longer even considered an existent problem.
The real cause of stunting is poverty and lack of access to nutritious foods. When I say poverty, I am referring to living on less than $2 a day (purchasing power parity) as more than 107 million Indonesians do. In addition to all the risk factors facing Indonesians in terms of food security, the food supply is highly vulnerable to climate-change effects such as floods, droughts, and landslides, as are many truly developing nations.
Werleman argues that America’s infrastructure is crumbling, and undoubtedly it should be improved and rebuilt. Still, the quality of those roads and bridges, train lines and sewer systems generally far exceed those in truly poor nations. In Indonesia, when it rains a lot — as it does every year — Jakarta floods, regularly displacing hundreds of thousands from their homes. The situation could be ameliorated by something resembling an adequate drainage system, such as that which most Americans enjoy.
Beyond physical infrastructure, the strength of American institutions is worth mentioning. The justice system in America may not be perfect, but overall it provides fair trials based on the “innocent until proven guilty” principle. Indonesia, on the other hand, struggles to meet basic standards of justice, as Amnesty International highlights. Here, known human-rights abusers (read: systematic murderers) walk free, while potentially innocent people are tortured and die in police custody before trial.
I am not suggesting that we hold the United States to a lower standard than our peer nations. (In a New York Times blog on inequality for example, authors like Joseph Stiglitz and Arindrajit Dube offer useful ideas for improving US policy). Rather, it is important to recognize the conditions under which people of truly developing nations live, and not undermine their struggles. Hyperbole can be damaging.
The comparison also undermines the United States’ most admirable feature: a culture of competence and drive resulting from the freedoms Americans enjoy, and a history of building those freedoms collectively. After years abroad, I am struck by that attitude and culture every time I visit home. Decades of political turmoil, brutal dictatorships, poor education, and poverty have left many developing nations in want of such a culture. In Indonesia, that weakness is pervasive: Many visitors and educated Indonesians themselves comment on a lack of ingenuity in this culture. It is important to recognize the value of the American ideals and culture, and encourage Americans to live up to them, rather than employing the shock value of an inappropriate comparison.