THE BLOG
02/25/2013 06:17 pm ET Updated Apr 27, 2013

Five Days on the Triumph Cruise Ship -- or a Lifetime in an Urban Slum?

Can you imagine having to spend five entire days in the tropics confined to crowded quarters with thousands of others, without functioning plumbing or adequate food? With sewage and its stench surrounding you, helpless to escape? And, needless to say, no air conditioning?

That experience is not limited to the unfortunate travelers on the Triumph cruise ship that lost power in the Caribbean last week. To be exposed to those conditions, just visit Korogocho, a massive slum in urban Nairobi, Kenya. Or a slum in Calcutta, or Quito, or any of the hundreds of "high density areas" (as urban slums are euphemistically known) around the world. There, those horrific conditions represent normal life for approximately a billion people globally, and the UN predicts that number will double by the year 2030, meaning that much as 25 percent of the entire projected global population will live in urban slums.

We in America are largely insulated from the way the rest of the world lives, but my work in international public health has taken me to a number of places that frame how I see the world today. I will never forget a walk through Korogocho many years ago. I was working with a nonprofit group that had developed a range of services for adolescents living there -- education about reproductive health, training in skills that might someday give them an opportunity for paid employment. But only a few minutes of walking through the narrow, trash-filled paths made me realize the massive challenge of bringing any meaningful improvements to their lives. HIV prevalence rates were high, crime was rampant, abject poverty was ubiquitous, and the struggle for food and clean water was a daily one, with essentially no public services. The crowded houses were makeshift arrangements of rusted tin and irregular pieces of rotting wood. They were adjacent to a massive garbage dump, and the inescapable odors of human excrement and decaying garbage in open sewers made it the most foul-smelling place I had ever been.

Yet many urban slum dwellers are born, grow up and die in such settings. While the Triumph cruise vacationers were desperate to leave the ship and get home after their harrowing experience, the dominant fear in most urban slums is that they will be evicted from their humble homes and become even more destitute. Many advocacy groups now resist the use of the term "slum," as it leads to pressure on cities to promote "urban renewal" and raze the shantytowns. But urban slum populations continue to increase. In India, for example, their numbers have doubled since 1970, and in Manila, half the population lives in slum areas. As world population increases, most of that expansion ends up in cities.

The reasons for this situation are many and complex. We know that global climate change and corporate agriculture takeovers of massive amounts of farmland have reduced the ability of family farmers to make a living on their own land, and see moving to cities as their only alternative. Economic and "free trade" policies have shackled the ability of poor countries to maintain profitable prices for their products and to subsidize basic needs of their citizens. Meanwhile, the vast inequality in the distribution of the world's wealth continues to grow.

But the movement of the world's poor to its cities also represents a migration of people hopeful for a better life, and that hopefulness is also a clear memory from my visit to Korogocho. The program staff there was proud to show us their orderly meeting room, the T-shirt uniforms they sported, and their educational materials. They described their success in helping a few young women become literate and eventually move away to paid employment. The picture of that room, and those young people, is only in my mind, but it's as clear a memory for me as all the smells and the makeshift shacks.

While I was sympathetic to the plight of the travelers on the Triumph cruise, I was impatient with all the attention they received. The media reporting was intense, with CNN focusing most of a day on television coverage of the plight of the Triumph passengers. We can exclaim our good fortune that we were not one of the luckless travelers on that cruise, or try to talk about their experience in a way that recognizes how essentially trivial five days of unpleasantness can be in the context of the poverty of most of the rest of the world. Instead of thinking of the predicament of those Americans as an unusual human experience, an aberration, why not use the cruise story to remind ourselves and others that it is all too similar to the living conditions of as much as 15 percent of the world's population?

I worry when we in the privileged world think that a bit of inconvenience for a relatively few "people like us" is worth a media storm. What might change that? When they "miss the boat" on such big issues, letters to the newspaper editor or online notes to the stations we most watch or listen to would help. It's also important to make positive comments on stories that give you new perspectives and provide serious analysis on important issues. You might follow a media source that challenges mainstream coverage, such as FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting). However it's done, we need to push our public media to include broader perspectives -- that sometimes include the rest of the world.

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