A Tale of Two Cities

January 26, 2014

This is a tale of two cities; a tale of those who have and those who don’t. This is a tale of a human condition that persists throughout the world – the very few who have and the many who do not. This is a short narrative on what shouldn’t be allowed to persist.

Thirty years ago I joined the Peace Corps with a naïve curiosity about other cultures and a desire to “change the world.”  I was 22 years old then. I lived for four years in two countries in the Central Pacific Ocean primarily among subsistence fisherman and farmers. I thought then, “These people are poor.” But at the same time I recognized that there was adequate, if not plentiful food, fairly clean water sources, and most certainly strong family structures, vibrant communities, respected village elders and especially in the Republic of Kiribati where I lived for my first two years, plenty of laughter, dance and jocularity.

Since then my travels and work have taken me to every continent on this globe with the exception of Antarctica and it seems that as the years have passed poverty, disenfranchisement, violence, inequality and hopelessness have become more entrenched than ever. So much for that goal of saving the world that I held at 22. But don’t get me wrong, I’m a glass half full sort of guy. I maintain hope and that’s why I continue to do what I do. I refuse to throw in my hat and call it quits. I refuse to say, “This world is going down the shitter and there’s nothing more I can do.” I believe that each ounce, each gram of positive energy and effort each of us puts into each day we’re given on this beautiful earth contributes to changing a trajectory towards total destruction and hopelessness.

At the same time I see more poverty and pollution than I’ve ever seen; I also see more hope that we can change what’s going wrong. I especially see it among my many friends who are doing incredible work as healers, herbalists, farmers, community volunteers, shamans, priests, monks, artists, counselors, therapists, carpenters, veterinarians, public servants. The list goes on and on. I also see it in my daughter and her friends and the many young people who are answering the call to step forward and be a positive force in this world. I’m encouraged. Call me an idealist, but I want to believe we’re heading towards a tipping point where the good in this world – and I believe there’s plenty of it – will hold sway over injustice and inequality.

But in the meantime… well, there’s plenty of work to do. And I don’t believe we all have to be making major sacrifices to make that change. Good thought, encouraging and gentle words to our children, simple acts of kindness, a small donation to a charity, deciding to walk five more steps to throw your waste in a refuse bin rather than the street, being kind to animals, all these and many, many more simple acts all contribute to changing the trajectory.

But let me demonstrate what I mean when I said earlier that there is an inequality on this earth that to me is unacceptable. Here’s the tale of two cities. I use the word “cities” in this blog post as a representation of two very different socio-economic statuses.

Here’s one: This is Bangkok, Thailand, taken from my 28th floor hotel room about two weeks ago when I made a quick overnight trip to speak with a potential donor for our water, sanitation and health programs in Rakhine.

Bangkok by Night

Here’s one of the camps my organization has been assisting with water, sanitation, health and child protection programs in Rakhine State, western Myanmar.


There are nearly 4,000 people in two camps where we have one of our three projects in Rakhine. The people who live here – Muslim and Buddhist displaced persons – have the bare minimum of water, food, clothing and shelter as defined in the Sphere Handbook, the Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Humanitarian Response.

Here’s one of the ponds from which they get their “drinking” water.  This pond is running dry during the dry season. Right now my organization has the funds through UNICEF to build a water treatment plant to pipe and treat water from the nearby community into this pond. But for months the local community, opposed to the presence of the inhabitants of this camp, have prevented us from getting our equipment from the loading dock to the planned facility just inside the camp. Recent discussions with government officials seem hopeful that we might be able to get this facility built before the end of February.

Clean water?

The web site, inequality.org, tracks and reports on issues like income and wealth inequality, legislation, executive pay, public attitudes and more. Inequality.org reports on its web site that “research, based on year 2000 data, found that the richest 1 percent of the world’s adult population, individuals worth at least $514,512, owned 39.9 percent of the world’s household wealth, a total greater than the wealth of the world’s poorest 95 percent…” You may read more here.

That just doesn’t seem right to me. You may choose to disagree. Whether you do or not, I invite you to share your thoughts by adding a comment to this post.

I know from my perspective that the people I work for and with aren’t lazy and they’re not asking for handouts. They just want to fish, farm, have clean water, secure shelter, education for their children and accessible healthcare. These rights are denied to them and millions and billions of others throughout the world.

Here’s a chart to lend a little more perspective.


Source: inequality.org

I hope you don’t misinterpret what I’m saying here by thinking I believe we all need to live in poverty. I certainly don’t want to. I know I love my iPod, my Prius and my beautiful home in the mountains of Vermont. I don’t feel we need to carry around a backpack full of guilt for what we have and what we’ve earned. However, I think we can all start by offering small gestures that go a long way to changing what to me just doesn’t seem right.

So can I end this post on a positive note?  I’d like to. Here’s a thought: this “situation” isn’t going to change overnight, but we can each extend our own effort toward changing the trajectory – offer a kind thought, a kind word, a kind gesture.  Ask yourself when is more enough for you?  I ask myself that from time to time without trying to get bogged down in guilt.  I once read that worry is like a rocking chair: it keeps you busy but gets you nowhere. Maybe guilt is like that too.  Hmm, something more for me to ponder.

In the meantime it’s back to Sittwe for me on Tuesday after a weekend of recuperating here in Yangon from a stomach infection I contracted in Sittwe. Maybe we’ll get that water treatment plant built and 25 more latrines before the end of February.  Any good energy you can send this way is greatly appreciated!


2 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Cities

  1. Steve wish I was there to give you a hand. Our prayers are with you buddy. What are living conditions like in Sittwe.

    • Hey Jimmy! Wish you were here too! Life in Sittwe’s pretty chaotic. I’m surrounded by poverty, but at the same time there’s evidence of significant wealth. Rakhine state has oil and gas that the Chinese are tapping into so corrupt government forces people off the land, does not pay them royalties and also receives significant bribes. It’s the complete opposite of my life in Vermont.

      I miss you buddy!

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