How the other half lives

Europeans have been coming to terms with uncomfortable levels of anxiety and uncertainty over the last few months. Prolonged financial crisis has pushed us back in to recession, and has condemned us to more austerity, low growth and lost opportunity. Each week seems to bring a new shade of darkness. What next month will bring – let along next year – is unknown, but we have got used to expecting the worse.

Yet we need to keep things in perspective. Europe’s democracies remain the most richly endowed of all the world’s nation states. Our societies are fundamentally prosperous, sophisticated, stable and – at least in theory – adaptable. Most of us enjoy qualities of life – even during a debt crisis – that are the envy of the majority of men and women in the world. Trains and trams continue to operate on time, healthcare services are generous and easily accessed, interesting and opinionated newspapers are printed daily, our schools are well equipped, the pavements are clean and on le weekend the multiplicity of leisure options available to each of us is extraordinarily rich.

I am not suggesting we should be complacent; things won’t necessarily get better. We need effective leadership and each of us needs to work hard and to be as smart as we are each able to be. If we don’t get certain policy decisions right – about education, energy supply and welfare for example – European countries could find themselves following disastrous trajectories within 15 to 20 years. And we should not be blithe about what is happening, or what current levels of sovereign debt mean for ourselves and our children if we don’t discover how to compete better with growth markets.

But we Europeans must also recognise how fortunate we are. Look at the experiences of Europeans through most of the 20th century: poverty, war, forced migration. What about  the billions alive today who see Europe, crisis or no crisis, as a destination they would risk their lives to reach? As rich world populations experience economic hardship and insecurity, they are sharing a fraction of the uncertainty and fear that runs the lives of hundreds of millions of our fellow human beings. Imagine life in Somalia, or the Congo, or Syria or a Sao Paolo flavella or a Mumbai slum. We have no idea, even though we may now be paying a little more attention.

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