Taj Mahal for the poor

on Tuesday, December 9, 2008

What the heck. It seems as though some idiot had a brilliant idea to build a life-size replica of the Taj Mahal in Bangladesh, of all places. This guy, a Bangladeshi film-maker, decided to spend $58 million dollars saying: "I am doing this only for the poor. They cannot travel. They cannot see this historical wonder."

You're doing this for the poor, Mr. Ahsanullah Moni? You think seeing the Taj Mahal is really going to make a difference?

$58 million dollars could go a long way in a country where 55% of its people (not counting children under 5) are illiterate. It could go pretty far in the lives of people who earn about 10% of what Americans do. Some estimates say that 40% of Bangladesh lives below the poverty line. I don't know if the poverty line they're talking about is absolute or relative, but it's certain that if these people are in poverty even by Bangladesh's definition, they're pretty dang poor. Let's not forget that the Western world's well-drilling craze of the past few decades basically destroyed Bangladesh's water supply, polluting it with arsenic. Maybe $58 million could go towards that damage and the resulting health problems. It makes me sick to think that this person is so jaded to think that a building in and of itself is going to do anything. Yes, it might be pretty to look at. And yes, it will bring foreign tourists in, which will in turn bring $$ to the country. That's great.

It reminds me of the UNs bright idea in the 80's to build a $73 million conference center in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Like a huge conference center for the rich expats is really going to improve the lives of Ethiopia's urban poor. It's just another way to segregate themselves even further from the poor, or in Graham Hankocks words, “so that they can stand on the 29th floor and watch the rest of the country starve to death”. Ouch, that's a hard punch.

Wangari Maathai, Kenyan nobel peace prize winner says that sustainable development, in the minds of the poor, is simply survival. That's all they care about. They don't care about a Taj Mahal, they don't care about a huge conference center, they just want to feed their families for one more day. They don't care about long-term development and how the country's GNP is going to be in 20 years, because they're so caught up in surviving TODAY. I wish the UN and the other big aid bureaucracies could understand that.

It's a shame that so much money, resources, and time has been spent on this, instead of actually looking at what the poor really want or need. Take a poll of the people in that country and see what they really want. I would be very surprised if they said, "nope, I don't want money, food, clothing, or shelter, or anything that would make a better life for myself and my family. But what I really want is a Taj Mahal".

Whatever. I, myself, have not even seen the Taj Mahal. And I don't think that fact has significantly lowered my quality of life. I hear it's beautiful though, if not quite the tourist trap.

Great idea, Mr. Ahsanullah Moni. Let's see if the poor people of Bangladesh can even afford a bus ticket to come see it.