My mother always told me and my brother that “fair isn’t always equal”. She usually used this phrase when we were kids to justify a situation where one of us ended up with an extra cookie or a little more ice cream than the other. Although it has been a while since I’ve fought with my brother over something as trivial as a cookie (not as long as you might think), my Mom’s words have stuck with me. Fair isn’t always equal. When you think about it, a lot of situations are fair and just, but not necessarily equal. A parent might spend more on her or his daughter for a prom dress than she or he would on a suit for a son; definitely fair, not equal. A baby might take up more of her or his parent’s time and energy than a teenager or adult; once again fair, but not equal. My brother might get more greeting cards than me today because it’s his birthday; you know the drill… Happy birthday by the way, Bradley. But to what extent can something be fair, yet unequal? More importantly, how much inequality can a society tolerate before said inequality is deemed to be unfair?
My Mother’s words do a great job highlighting the fact that certain conditions of inequality are still deemed fair by us Canadians; but on a macro level such a notion does not necessarily hold true. For example, in Canada alone the divide between the highest and lowest income earners is the largest it has ever been. This is definitely not equal, but you will still find some people who see it as fair. After all, those who earn a higher income must have spent time building social capital by learning a specialized skill or getting a university degree. But is it fair that people are born with unequal opportunities to build social capital? Probably not. So perhaps it is not fair that some Canadians are much better off than others, but I will let you decide.
Let’s look at the Ugandan context. Even though I am a ‘poor’ student by Canadian standards, I am still relatively wealthy compared to a lot of Ugandans. In fact, nearly 40% of Ugandans lived in extreme poverty (less than US $1.25/day) only a few years ago. Given this, it is definitely fair that I pay an unequally high price to ride a boda or buy fruit at the market. Society can tolerate me spending an extra few dollars because I can easily afford to do so. Let’s take it one step further, is it fair that because I am relatively wealthy that I get to eat higher quality food, gain immunity from viruses such as yellow fever, take malaria pills every day, and drink clean water? As humans, can we tolerate the fact that I have more access to human rights like healthy food and clean drinking water than someone who cannot afford them? I do not think that the aforementioned inequalities are fair, but I will let you decide.
As you can probably tell, I have been thinking about the privilege that I brought with me to Uganda. Since arriving here, I’ve noticed that my privilege has allowed me to jump some queues. The most concrete example of this happened yesterday morning. I woke up at 7:21 AM to the sound of my phone ringing. Before remembering that I sleep under a mosquito net (my fort, no girls allowed), I lunged for my phone on the other side of the barrier and ended up falling out of bed completely, taking the mosquito net with me. The whole ordeal looked like mix between Deadliest Catch and that scene in Finding Nemo where all the fish yell “Just Keep Swimming!” I regained my composure and answered the phone. On the other end of the line was one of my co-workers (C):
C: Goooooooooood morning Jerry (they call me that sometimes), did I wake you?
Me: Of course not! (Ha)
C: Gooooooooooood. I need you and Rachel to come to the office. We are attending a breakfast meeting with Members of Parliament to discuss proposed amendments to the National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill.
Me: That sounds wonderful, when?
C: Right now, Jerry. I am waiting for you. You and Rachel finish your tea and we will go.
Me to C: Of course! We will be by right away.
Me to myself: Crap, how do I get out of this net?
Me to Rachel moments later: Rachel, are you up? *groggy response from Rachel*… good, we have to be at work in ten minutes!
We arrived at work by 7:34 and were eating a fancy breakfast at the Hotel Africana before the hour was out – not bad for third day on the job. The meeting itself was incredible, but first a little background. It is a pretty important time for the Republic of Uganda right now. The country is rapidly modernizing, nearly half of the population is under the age of 25 so the work force is booming, and technology is coming to the forefront of the agricultural sector. The latter is a gift and a curse.
In 2012 a Bill was brought to the floor of the Ugandan Parliament that aimed to facilitate the widespread introduction of Biotechnology (such as Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)) into Uganda’s agriculture sector. This Bill was called the National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill. GMOs, however, are a controversial technology because of the biological and sociological impacts they have on those who farm them and eat them. Without getting too far into it, it is safe to say that the jury is still out on the extent to which GMOs should be incorporated in agriculture – especially in Uganda where most farmers practice subsistence agriculture rather than large scale farming. Consequently, the proposed Bill has sparked a great deal of controversy among civil society groups and interested stakeholders alike. While one camp believes that the purpose of the Bill should be to facilitate the use of Biotechnology the other believes that the Bill’s principle purpose should be to regulate it. At least everyone can agree that a law is needed!
Lucky for me, I had a front row seat to this fascinating debate. The meeting was democracy in its purest form: members from civil society presented their cases and MPs listened, asked questions and explained their positions. Brilliant. It was also refreshing to get away from the partisanship that plagues public policy debate in Canada, but that is another post for another day. However, during the meeting I could not help but think that I was jumping the queue. I lived in Canada for all my life and it took me 20 years to get in a room with some of the most powerful people in the country, yet in Uganda it took me less than a week. I started to wonder why it was me who got to sit in on this meeting and not a hard working Ugandan farmer. After all, this Bill will affect farmers WAY more than it will ever impact me. Yes, it was fantastic to witness a part of Uganda’s history first hand, but there were so many other people who were ahead of me in the queue. It was not fair that I got to jump the queue because of the privilege that I brought with me to Uganda.
I think that one of the biggest challenges that I face in the coming months is learning how to take advantage of amazing opportunities while still realizing that they are a result of underlying power structures. Is it fair that I get an unequal opportunity to attend high level meetings at the exclusion of those who need to be there more than me just because I came here in a position of privilege? Well, that’s something that I will have to give some serious thought to.
To close even though fair is not always equal, if we humans have any respect and dignity for each other, we need to remember that fair should almost always be equal; that there is only so much inequality that we ought to tolerate before something becomes unfair. Where we draw the line between fairness and equality is up for all of us to decide, so we better get cracking.
Your friendly neighborhood NGO worker,
p.s. please comment or facebook me with questions you have about life in Uganda. Part of the QES Program is public engagement and I’d love to do a mini Q and A for an upcoming blog post.