Stereotypes and Misunderstandings

In countries such as India, there is frequently an impression that Western visitors and therefore, by extension, all Westerners, own vast wealth and have massive amounts of leisure time at their disposal.

After all, they arrive on holiday, perhaps for a month or more, and they go around staying in places that are far beyond the means of the average Indian, spend the equivalent of several month’s wages on souvenirs, often hop on an aircraft to take a journey that would be one hundredth of the price by rail, flaunting expensive cameras and watches and phones and designer clothes. So who wouldn’t think that?

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This is not helped by the impressions given by many Western films and programs, where work seldom seems to get in the way of whatever action the film is depicting.

This often affects how local people interact with visitors, and their feelings about them.

I suspect it even drives a certain amount of international migration, too.

And so I think it very important to highlight a few facts;

Basically, the differences in exchange rates of different currencies give the impression of great wealth which is not, in fact, true.

A few numbers:

The average annual wage in the UK is currently £28,000, or $34,400. This sounds a lot (even to me!) but that hides a huge variation, of course.

It is quite hard to find figures that agree about the average annual Indian wage, with estimates varying from around $600, up to around $3500, although this may well reflect the massive difference between the rural worker and a worker in, for example, the IT industry. For sake of argument, I’m going to use the figure of $2000, which could still be slightly on the high side, looking at some of the sites I’ve gone to.

This would give the average UK worker a wage 17 times higher than the Indian. Sounds good for us, but the average cost of a house in the UK is now some £300,000 – that’s $369,000, and it is now almost impossible for young people to buy their own house unless they are helped by well-off parents, and they have very well-paid jobs. The average rent, otherwise, is around $12,300 per year. About a third of the average wage.

To find an average cost to rent in India is also difficult (for me!). I scoured a lot of sites, and seemed to come up with a figure of somewhere around $1,200 a year, although there were massive variations, both between cities and within them. If I have got these figures correct, that is around a half of the average wage.

The prices of basic commodities such as foodstuffs or power vary a lot between India and UK, too. Whereas I have bought street food in India for a rupee or two, making a lunch for perhaps 15 or 20 cents, it would cost me at least $2.50 to $3 in UK for the equivalent.

This isn’t to draw up an accurate comparison between the two – it would be quite a study to do that – but to try to make the point that the average person in the UK is better off (materially) than the average person in India, but not by nearly as much as many might think.

India has more of a problem with poverty, but the West has quite a bit, too. And whilst the poor in the West are emphatically not as badly off as their cousins in India, they still endure considerable hardship. Even with the existence of the supposed safety net of Social Security. There is homelessness. There is malnourishment.

Incidentally, and I pose this as a question to my Indian friends, I frequently read articles that focus on aid and development in poor (especially rural) areas of India, highlighting the fact that a large percentage of the population have to survive on around two dollars a day.

In the light of the above, I wonder whether this isn’t a little disingenuous, since that figure may not be as far below the average wage as many in the West believe, and wonder what you think?

I think it matters, because I believe this might distract attention from where work is needed more, such as improving sanitation, work conditions and medical care.

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41 thoughts on “Stereotypes and Misunderstandings

  1. I suppose global labour arbitrage is gradually eroding the differentials in living standards between East and West, as well as North and South Americas, and we in The West are correcting for our own declining standards by borrowing. I must say I think that’s a disaster in the making, as if 2008 hadn’t foretold as much.

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    1. I agree the differentials are slowly being eroded. I suppose that in a truly global economy, that is an inevitability, sooner or later. I came, I saw, I wanted.
      And the massive borrowing is just crazy. Just from an ‘Ordinary Joe with a small income, a family and household, and an average bank account’ point of view, it goes against everything I ever learned (and practised!).

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  2. It’s not an easy equation you set yourself there Mick. 🙂

    Cost of living (apart from widely variant rental rates) is quite, quite low in India compared to the west, so a dollar goes a long, long way of course. I am not aware that organizations are using this disingenuous method of quoting dollar rates to garner more charity funds. but it needs to be said that things aren’t as simple as that.

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    1. I don’t think that I’m suggesting charities are being deliberately unfair, perhaps more that they sometimes don’t fully realise the realities (it does happen!), which leads to, occasionally, the wrong focus.
      BTW are you in India at the moment, Himanshu?

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        1. Just curious as to where you are! Quite interested to hear your view of charities; there are many types, of course, and I’ve always had a generally good impression of them (with some exceptions, admittedly). They’re all made up of fallible human beings, I guess.

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  3. Interesting observations and calculations Mick. You said it well, there is a huge variation among the data and facts in India which makes comparisons difficult. The costs are rising fast in India too. Kolkata is cheapest while Mumbai is expensive city to survive in.
    The exchange rate makes things cheaper or expensive.

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    1. I do know that housing costs are ‘through the roof’ (so to speak) in Mumbai, although I don’t really know how the other centres compare. I did get quite interested in all the variations as I looked at various sites, but I was all at sea trying to find any sort of pattern there. I expect the only real pattern is the usual one of supply and demand.

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      1. In India he problem is compounded by many reasons, one of which is land mafia and investors who park money in land and houses, so the demand and supply situation is artificially affected for the unreasonable profits. Out here also, it’s difficult for a common person to buy a house. The current government would like to change this situation. Let’s see how far things improve.

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  4. You made some interesting points, Mick. I think most people who have traveled a bit will have had the experience of feeling like a millionaire in some countries and a pauper in others because of the differences in the local cost of living. As for the experiences of the poor within each country, I know the degree of hardship actually involved will vary a great deal, and the existence of social safety nets will make a huge difference, but all the same, it’s going to be a pretty unpleasant experience everywhere.

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  5. An insightful post ~ and the misunderstanding are almost impossible to correct. I had a discussion with my Chinese friend about this once as they mentioned how rich Americans were. Our conclusion: my friend had a monthly salary of $900, and was able to save $700 a month, while many friends in the USA had monthly salaries of $3,000 yet found themselves further in debt every month. 🙂 Great post, such things in life look one way but until you understand the perspective, it is a warped way of looking at life. Cheers to a great 2017 Mick!

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    1. That sums it up very well, I think. In a way, rich and poor are relative terms, of course, and exchange rates are all artificial. On top of that, what matters more is not the income at our disposal, but what we need (or want!) to spend it on.
      A very happy new year to you, too!

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  6. I agree, I think that the wealth of the average Westerner (whether in the UK or the States) is over-estimated in many parts of the world. We are better off than most countries, but we still have our share of poverty, and our middle class is slowly sinking into the poverty class. It is a tough situation all around. Thanks for drawing our attention to it!

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  7. Very interesting post, Mick. I admit to not knowing much about the economics of the world, my own country included. Yet, it does seem to me that even if, for example, an American is living paycheck to paycheck, yet can afford an excursion to India even on a budget, he or she is still better off than the India citizen who will never be able to fathom being able to afford leaving his country. Which brings me to the role of government, and also the concept of mindset. I’ve always thought American government creates a condition that makes Americans believe that they’re free, and thus have the freedom to spend their money (or charge and go into debt) to travel. Whereas other countries have learned the mindset that we are poor, I’ll never leave this place. Then again, I know there are Americans living in the inner cities who have this same mindset. But they at least have the benefit (if one can call it a benefit) of having social welfare. This situation is so complex, I hardly know the answer. I just can’t help but believe it all comes down to government. How much power and authority it has, which citizens they believe need to feel empowered, how much it realizes the people need to be content or else its a failure, etc. Honestly, I feel at any moment that any of us in so-called “developed” nations can be a mess if our governments stop their obligation to us.

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    1. Thanks, Kim. Yes, obviously my post was a simplistic take on a complex subject. There is clearly a difference in degrees of poverty between countries which are more than just people’s perceptions. I would suggest, for example, that someone who is living paycheck to paycheck yet can afford a trip to India is not really poor – they would presumably either have to have a period of living more frugally than usual to pay for it, or go into debt. And debt is a completely different animal to different nations and even different groups within each nation. By coincidence, it was reported yesterday in UK that the average household is £11,000 in debt. I have not read the fine print, so I do not know whether that includes, for example, mortgages, but it is a huge figure. And I know many people will shrug and say so what? They would pay the interest and talk nicely to the bank and the debt just continues year on year and they get on with their lives. That will tend to be the middle class in the West. That couldn’t happen in India.
      There are a few who live in ‘real’ poverty in the West; those on the streets, mainly. We have the social security safety net that does not exist in India. There, poverty means poverty. No money? No food. End of.
      And just to pick up your point about mindsets and governments, I would say that the expectation of travel is one small part of the expectation fuelled by Big Business (and governments) that everyone ‘needs’ consumer products, and has a ‘right’ to them.

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  8. This is quite a complicated topic, Mick. India is a vast country with diversities, not only in language or physical features but also with the types of Governments in different states and with different living standards. Different cities have different house rents, and even in the same city, it varies widely.

    I think it’s not disingenuous to say that a number of Indians have to survive on two dollars a day. Two dollars are equivalent to INR 120 (approx.) If you only consider the food, the cost somehow is close to this for many Indians, especially the ones who live in rural areas. In that case, also, we have to keep in mind that most of them have a house of their own (maybe a thatched one) to live in. There are many other factors, of course, and the topic can lead to a long dissertation.

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    1. It is complex, and I don’t pretend to know any more about it than the next person. As far as the two dollars a day figure is concerned, I was making the point that it comes across differently to the average Westerner, who would assume that it would have to pay not only for food, but also for everything else including housing – the point being that housing is probably the expense that takes most of anyone’s income in the West. Although they might appreciate that food costs are lower in India, they would probably not understand that for many Indians, especially rural ones, housing may not be a huge problem. I think that this sometimes skews the picture when it comes to funding programs to improve the lot of the poor. Obviously, I might be wrong.
      But yes, it is complicated. I understand a bit about the problems of the urban middle class in, for example, Mumbai, where rents are now sky-high. This sounds a little like the problems in my own part of the UK, where housing costs are very high. Thanks, Maniparna.

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      1. Rightly that. Even we fail to understand the problems of rural India. There are farmers with acres of land and plush farmhouses where as there are also landless laborers. Where as it’s easy to at least guess the root of problems in big cities like Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai and so on. And, yes, the picture gets skewed because of this disparity. Another thing is, there are many NGOs, who, in order to receive funding from wealthier countries, distort the facts. Not all NGOs work selflessly to improve the conditions of the poor and homeless. Sorry to say but this is true.

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        1. Oh, I understand about the NGOs. I’ve spent some time with one in India, and got to both hear a few stories about some others, and also observe how it was run – which was not terribly well, and not 100% honestly. The answer would have been (in that particular case) to have had better oversight by the sponsors, and more input from recognised experts. But that’s perhaps the subject for another post, another time (When Indians can tell me to mind my own business!).

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          1. Haha…when one knows about the NGOs in India, we assume, he has acquired a subsequent knowledge about the country 😀 Anyway, jokes apart, I will wait for that post…I always love to know your views about my country. Hope someday we will discuss about all these things (and some lighter ones, too) over a cup of coffee… 🙂

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  9. Interesting post Mick. You are right about the impression that most people in India have about westerners travelling to the country. Given the currency rate, the average annual salary in UK is much higher as compared to India, but as you have pointed out the cost of living is equally high or more in UK. Another fact to be considered is that it is very difficult to arrive at avg annual salary in India due to the vast differences in economic conditions of people living in India and the unevenness in wealth distribution. As you have mentioned ‘homelessness’ it reminds me how surprised I was when I first saw homeless people sitting outside the stations in UK, I felt that the cold weather must be making it very difficult for them than it would be for homeless people in India.
    The middle class in UK, has to work hard to be able to afford a good lifestyle. If I am right, the contract jobs in UK pay more than permanent jobs.
    Whereas, in India people earning can enjoy facilities like getting people to help for household work, driver etc which are often pretty expensive in the UK.
    So, with more people travelling to the west, the notion that westerners are rolling in money and leisure time is changing, but again this would hold true for those who have had some experience/ exposure to living in the west.

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    1. You are right, i think, about the cold weather being an extra issue for homeless people to face in places like the UK. In the winter, it is a real problem. That’s not to say that the homeless in India don’t suffer from the weather – an unusually cold period in Winter in Delhi always brings a wave of deaths. But because being homeless over here is seen by many people as being self-inflicted – they can’t be bothered to work, or are just alcoholics, or some other excuse – we have the shameful situation where a well-off country (UK) spends very little on the problem, leaving it all to charities to sort out. And this attitude, coupled with that of some of the more repellent newspapers, means many people have no sympathy for their plight.
      I’m not sure that the contract jobs in UK are so well paid, though. One of the problems associated with them is that many of those contracts are what are known as ‘zero hours’ contracts, whereby the employer does not guarantee any particular number of hours, and might only offer a couple of hours one week, or even none, yet the employee has to make themselves available for work if required, which prevents them taking other jobs. Therefore they could end up with no paid work for a period.
      And that is an interesting point about many in India having drivers and cleaners and others. Yes, it would be expensive in UK, and definitely a perk of the middle class – at least cleaners, anyway. We don’t tend to have drivers unless we are very well off!

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  10. Another generality marginally related to your post: I’ve noticed during my 25+years of traveling to the developing world how the differences in some of the respective poorer areas have narrowed over the years — that is, how poorer areas in parts of North America (US primarily) and western Europe have grown to more closely resemble their counterparts in the less developed world, in both urban and rural areas.

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    1. Agreed. I suspect it has more than a little to do with the way that different cultures are slowly growing to resemble each other, fuelled increasingly by films and advertising, and then by the presence of multinationals in every country.

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  11. Pingback: Cost of Living in India – lovehappinessandpeace

  12. Mick this is an interesting topic. Actually as I live in Nairobi I can for sure say poverty is way higher than I have seen in India. Maybe I haven’t been in such areas. Here it’s so visible. Talking about charity, we wanted to give some every year to some charitable institution. Rather than choosing India we chose Malaysia as my husband is from there. After few months of helping an institution we found out that they are cheaters. Interesting right. So it’s become a business just like other fields. Wish people can be more human.
    Meena.

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    1. Thanks, Meena. Yes, it is a real shame that people explout the generosity of others that way. It pays to be careful where you send money. I think the greatest shame is that it discourages people from helping genuine good causes.

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