Are Poor People Lazy?
In Uganda a few teenagers were instructed to dig a ditch. Their manager said that they would get a 50% bonus of a day’s wages if they dig the ditch to a stake the manager put in the ground. The manager leaves and comes back at the end of the day. The teenagers dug the ditch within one foot of the stake but were sitting on the ground when the manager came back. “You are so close. Why did you not finish?” the manager said. “We are tired” the boys replied. The teenagers dug over 30 feet but didn’t finish the last foot to gain 50% more money because “they were tired”.
If anyone in the West looks at this example they will probably be led to believe that the poor are poor because of their laziness. My friend who was the manager came to that very conclusion. He is wrong.
One thing that Westerners can never understand in Africa is that personal income is actually not personal. In rural Africa whoever has the greatest need has a right to the money. Therefore there is no incentive to work for more money that you need on a given day because it will simply go to someone else. The teenagers didn’t stop working because they were lazy but because if they got the bonus, it would have ultimately gone to someone else even though they “earned it”. The communal nature of communities undermines its potential.
But that is only half of the story. The second part is that there is little work to be done and plenty of time to do it. Most of us probably have the opposite problem. That is exactly why, again, we come to false conclusions in Africa. Unchecked assumptions.
If you have one hour of work but twelve hours to do it, how productive are you going to be? Most of the poor in developing countries are in agriculture which means most of the work is during the harvest and little work during other times.
The businesses that the poor start in villages or the city are the same businesses that anyone else can start so the income is just enough for them to stay in business. Often that translates to plenty of down time during the day. In economic terms the opportunity cost of leisure is incredibly low.
When you find someone in Africa who is doing well in business they are doing a bunch of different things. They have crossed the barrier where they can take on businesses that are out of reach for most. They have a ton of work but these people are few and far between. They are the exception, not the rule.
We say that we are all created equal but it is interesting that often our thoughts and actions reveal that we only conditionally believe in it. Calling all poor people lazy means that we aren’t all equal. Yet that logic is only obtained when we look at the outcome on the surface rather than the environment that makes that outcome rational. If you were born in Uganda you would be “lazy” too, but it would be rational for you to make the decisions that make you seem lazy to others.