Tag Archives: America

GINI in a Bottle: A Comparative look at Inequality in the United States and Cameroon.

When I sat down to look at the income inequality index for Cameroon, I thought I would spend most of my time defending Cameroon for the poor performance it’s done relative to other countries. Instead, the joke’s on me. Before your mind is blown, let’s look at some basic data you probably already know comparing Cameroon and the United States:

Comparative Table

Source: Cameroon & The United States

     The Gini coefficient is a measure of the inequality of a distribution, a value of 0 expressing total equality and a value of 1 maximal inequality. To be clear, income distribution should not be confused for a quality of life ranking. Measuring inequality is just that–examining the divide, not the average.  Inequality has more than individual implications. Broadly, it affects social mobility, infrastructure, political stability, and immigration/brain drain. A distorting factor of these values is that the gini coefficient does not take into account corruption and fraud.

When I was rifling around for Cameroon gini data, I thought to myself “Wait, Cameroonians don’t pay income tax. How do they calculate this?” Well, luckily I came across this paper from the University of Yaounde, where I found out there have been three large scale consumption surveys, the last two surveys reaching more than 10,000 households, that are representative of the total population. According to the 2011 UNHABITAT paper on urban inequality, the gini can be calculated two ways; consumption and income based inequality rankings. Both the income and consumption inequalities are linked to broader economic factors like labour markets, capital investment in public services, lack of pro-poor services etc. Using consumption based gini coefficients are a stronger indicator of inequality because high gini coefficients also denote unequal access to public goods, which may act as a hindrance to poverty reduction strategies and achievement of Millennium Development Goals.

My inspiration began with this error ridden article in the Atlantic, but I was still shocked to find that the States and Cameroon aren’t so different when looking at income distribution. There are multiple places to get your gini coefficients. Mr. Fisher of the Atlantic used the CIA World Factbook, but I prefer UNDP because of it’s international presence and intuitive presentation of data. When I was comparing his own maps and comments to the UNDP, they didn’t match up all of the time. So I made my own visual.

Below is a Venn Diagram, highlighting countries based on their gini coefficient. Conveniently in the middle, you will see Cameroon and the United States, who happen to have comparable levels of inequality.  The countries in the purple, center section all fall between the narrow difference in coefficients for Cameroon and the United States. All countries were selected based on regional and economic diversity–it wouldn’t be helpful to only put Europe in Blue and Africa in Red.

Venn3

Source: UNDP

Here are some of the major takeaways of the UNDP data: 

  • In terms of Human Development Index Rankings, the United States (no. 5) sticks out like a sore thumb when examining it’s gini coefficient. Aside, from Israel (no. 19) and Qatar (no. 31) there isn’t a lot of variance at the top. There are a lot of mid-20’s and low-30’s of almost exclusively Western European countries, indicating a higher level of income redistribution (tax, social welfare programs etc.) among classically “successful” nations. Most highly ranked countries have an average gini coefficient of 32.6, substantially lower than the United States–even when factoring an average that includes an outlier like the United States.
  • The United States having a high gini coefficient could be indicative of low levels of income redistribution (low tax rates, etc.) compared to other highly ranked UNDP countries. The U.S. is a great place to be if you are extraordinary, but less so if you are average compared to other OECD countries.
  • Latin America seems to struggle with inequality, Nicaragua was the only country in Latin America within the 38.9-40.8 window. As a group, they average a gini coefficient of about 47.4
  • The base for countries that have a similar gini coefficient can have a huge variance. For example, a country like Norway, with a gini of 25.8 and Afghanistan with a gini of 27.8 have similar distribution levels of consumption, but the “Bottom” or starting points are worlds apart. The same could be said for the United States and Cameroon.

In my village, there are several “big men”, people with wealth. What is different about how wealth is handled here is that they build a 5,000 square-foot house along the road, next to shanties. I feel like, compared to my upbringing in metro Detroit, wealth is more visible here, andt also less segregated. It is not just during funeral season that the wealthy come out, they participate and sponsor most of the social events here informally. My friend Brittany asked me, how large are the elite class in the U.S. compared to Cameroon? I don’t know. My impression is that, as a percentage, there are more wealthy people in the United States, but the spread is also wider. The big question here seems to be is this a problem?

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Homesick at 11 Months

I’m sitting at my kitchen table with a pile of Mangoes I bought for the equivalent of one dollar in front of me. The Lumineers and Coltrane are playing and I’m wearing a onesie at the frip which probably was originally sold in America. I have electricity and running water (today anyway). I could probably be in America. But I’m not. And I can only think of home. It’s almost Flower Day at the Eastern Market. I’m thinking about how I missed Easter (actually I forgot and was sick anyway). I’m thinking about how my niece can walk this Easter and she will practically be a teenage by the time I get home. I remember how my mom and I would eat lunch together twice a week last year at this time. I miss yelling at my mom to go to bed while she sleeps on the couch almost every night. I can smell the cider and pizza at Motor City Brewing Works.

My family

Home sickness sneaks up on me like a bad hangover or a sneaky case of stomache bacteria. I woke up with the best intentions, put on my running shoes and even left the house. I got to my local call box (for those of us without cell phones) and turned right around and went home. Being homesick is a lot like the classic symptoms of depression. I start telling myself that I have no projects going on, that I’m not a good volunteer. I will want to spend all day watching American TV shows (Entourage or The Wire anyone?) or sleeping. I don’t feel like cooking. Most of all, I don’t want to leave my house.

All of these behaviors are counterproductive. In fact, after I told myself that I have no projects going on and I’m a bad volunteer, I made a list. I have 9 projects of activities in the pipeline this month. That’s not nothing. And even though I punked out on my run this morning, I am going to make myself do a quick indoor workout tonight. No. Excuses. I obviously need the endorphin boost.

I’m lucky because most days I am so amused and full of happiness. I left Michigan at 18; I’ve been gone a full 6 years now. The truth is I only have one friend there Being home can be more lonely than being in Cameroon where I am a total outsider. When I’m home I spend a lot of time in my mom’s robe or with family. Maybe this is the beginnings of a yearning to plant some roots? I traditionally only went home 2-3 times a year. But I still miss my people who are spread out all over the world. The one’s who have known me before my travelling days.

My people

Before I came to Cameroon, I Skyped with Julie and alum of my school and PCV in Ukraine. She told me that I would have bad days, weeks, even months. Well, my bad month is here. When I feel like this, I remind myself that even bad days happen in America and it’s part of the game.

 

La Maison de la Blanche: Manjo Edition

Sunset

In Peace Corps, each of us are given a place to live. No one knows what that place will be like. Running water? How many bedrooms? How difficult is it to get there? Will I have a postmate? When we are in training, we can make requests, but the key word here is request. Peace Corps Cameroon is the kind of place where a small number of volunteers are so isolated and lacking amenities that they have a satellite phone. I came to Cameroon prepared to adjust to whatever Peace Corps threw my way. We traditionally have two meetings while training to discuss personal needs for a potential site. When I sat down in my first meeting with my program manager to discuss post, I made a list of things I would like, in order of preference. It went something like this:

1) Francophone

2) less than 30 kilometres to the next volunteer

3) Internet access within 30 km as well.

My large terrace

But then I started rambling about how I have been daydreaming about making pineapple wine. And before I knew it, the meeting was over. 

Then, four weeks later, we had another meeting. At this point I had been in Cameroon long enough to begin having some dietary stress. The lack of fruit in my diet was making me miserable. I was constipated for weeks at a time. Fruit is not really a regular part of the Cameroonian diet in the way Americans eat fruit. In the States, I can eat a fruit salad and a glass of chocolate milk everyday—that’s a great meal for me! Here, well, the primary ingredients in anything is palm oil, rice and piment. Everything else is optional. So by the time the second meeting arrive, I had been dragged through the mud with language training. I wasn’t feeling so confident with my French, I had even cried in language class the first week. I sat down and told my program manager that at this point, I don’t care where I go, I need to have access to fruit all year round, or else I will not survive. After that, everything is negotiable. I also mumbled that francophone would still be fun.

Bathroom

KitchenFast forward to August 8th, when I arrived in Manjo. I had spent two days travelling with Ben to our region. I stepped out of a bus meant for 35, but packed with 56 (excluding children under 10). I looked around and saw two petrol stations and tons of people swarming at me. Because fate always is timely, the phone towers were not working, making a phone call was impossible, so I just stood there trying to remember how many bags I had. I would later find out phone service is very much an on-again-off-again thing here by the hour during rainy season. But then my community host, Monique found me and within minutes, I was moving through the center of town toward my apartment. As I crossed the street and people gesticulated to eachother that they understood why I was here, I knew that I would never again be a stranger here.

I am living on the Francophone/Anglophone line in the Littoral region of Cameroon. My village is francophone, and my language skills are greatly improved since those interviews in Bafia. I am 15 km away from 5 volunteers and 20 km away from Ben, a guy who began training with me. I have running water all of the time and electricity most of time. While, living with my host family, I spent every morning and evening drawing water from the well. And while I have running water, I still take bucket baths because I heat the bucket first so that I am not freezing cold. I am living in an apartment on the road to Douala. I have 3 bedrooms and two bathrooms. All fully furnished, though I have added a nice speaker system. I have two terraces, they both look out to the mountains which host enviable sunsets on the regular. One terrace has a sink for doing laundry or just to serve dinner on. I have a TV. With cable. I The back terracelive less than 3 hours from the coast. I live in, what some argue, is one of the nicest apartments in Peace Corps Cameroon. The person I am replacing, Cherlin, took it a step further and had made the bed and put fresh soap out for my arrival. But the cherry on top is that I am literally surrounded by fruit. I even have a man, Thaddeus who delivers papaya to me when I call him. 

Dining Room

My bedroomSomehow, needing to be near fruit. Being arguably the pickiest eater in my training cohort has gotten me a little paradise in the jungle. It is my first time living alone. The apartment is huge. Washing the floors is quite an undertaking but also a very good workout. But most importantly, it feels like home. 

Living room

Sunset II