Trickling Up: An Expat Economic Theory

The U.S. Trickle-Down economic theory sounds hopelessly pessimistic to me. The word “down” used as an adjective reflects negativity and is downright depressing. It defines a lower position ( Nicaragua has a down economy.), something unable to function (Our electricity is always down!), and someone who is sick. ( My neighbor is down with the flu.)

Therefore, with optimism and enthusiasm, I am going to attempt to explain my expat economic theory of Trickling Up. Just the word “up” sounds so much more encouraging, don’t you agree? If there is one thing I have learned while living in Nicaragua, it is to always be optimistic and encouraging, and lend a hand up when possible.

When we moved to Nicaragua, we received advice from everybody… from how to purify our water to how to bargain like a Nica. Some of the advice was well-received. Other advice, I couldn’t help but wonder about. For example, I was reprimanded by other expats for providing a free lunch for our workers, tipping too much at local restaurants, and paying too much for a taxi. They said, “You are driving up the cost of everything by paying gringo prices willingly.” Or, “The workers will expect the same treatment and pay from us, too.”

I look at it this way. Trickle-Down has never worked in impoverished countries because huge sums of money allocated to government officials never reach those who need it the most. What is wrong with reversing the system of aid by trickling up? The average Nicaraguan earns five dollars a day! Even in Nicaragua, that is well below a level of poverty that defies my understanding of how hard-working families exist.

Here’s an example of my trickling up theory. We are building an addition to our guest house. We hired Marvin to build a bathroom, dig a new septic tank, and add a new kitchen/living room area…nothing fancy…just small and comfortable for our guests. First, we had Marvin make a list of all the materials he would need and give us a list of the costs of materials. Then, we told Marvin that in the U.S., we usually figure labor costs based on the cost of materials. Labor is usually the same amount as the cost of the materials. The carefully prepared list of materials came to $2,000, so we told Marvin that we would pay him $2,000 for his labor. “That is not how we do it in Nicaragua,” Marvin honestly replied. “We charge $10 a day for the contractor and $5 a day for the helpers.” If we did it Marvin’s way, he and his helpers would make much less and take more time to complete the job.

We wrote up a contract, specifying the payments in six weekly installments. Marvin orders the materials with our approval and we pay the bill at the local hardware store. It is a win-win situation for all of the families. Marvin will have enough money to buy more tools and supplies for his business, and meet the needs of his growing family. His son and another friend are his helpers. Marvin can decide how much of a percentage to pay them and knowing Marvin, he will be generous with his percentage.

Marvin and his crew

Trickling up is a fair and sound economic system for expats. We can live comfortably on our retirement savings because the cost of living in Nicaragua is about 1/4 of the cost of living in the states. Our money goes a lot farther here, so why not invest in the future of Nicaragua? Trickling up makes sense to me! With a simple system of accountability and fairness in good labor practices, everybody is happy.

War of Worlds

Someone asked me yesterday why I live in a third world country. She spat out the question like she had overdosed on bitter medicine and looked at me with disgust and fear. Puzzled by her reaction I asked, “What is your definition of a third world country?” “Oh, yuck!” she spat. “It’s a country filled with disease and poor people. Who in their right mind would live in a third world country?”

Since I am in the states visiting my mother, these comments occur more often. Either people fear for my life because of all the ‘diseases I could get’ or like my mother, question my sanity. My mother tells people I am a missionary in a third world country. “Mom, you have to stop telling people I’m a missionary,” I reprimand. “I’m not a missionary. I’m not even religious.”  “But, you do so many good things for all those poor people,” she said. “You are a missionary in my eyes.”  I sigh and nod my head. She introduces me to a friend of hers. “This is my daughter. She is…the word ‘like’ is barely audible… a missionary in Nicaragua.” I sigh again and nod my head.

I’m beginning to understand my mom’s logic. If she tells people I am a missionary, then they won’t look at me with fear and disgust because I live in a third world country. My mother solidifies her good reputation with God and her church friends because she raised a missionary daughter instead of an insane one. I can live comfortably in a third world country because I am ‘doing good things’ for all those pitiful poor people.

This conversation got me thinking about the definition of a third world country. Despite ever evolving definitions, most people envision a third world filled with suffering, dying, big bellied, crying, dirty, malnourished babies living with uneducated, extremely poor, emaciated, suffering, crying, dirty, and unemployed family members, who live in fear of a harsh, unbending dictator in a socialist or communist country with AK 47’s pointed in their faces.  Often these visions are accompanied by lots of sobbing and pitiful cries with bony fingers extended, and a malformed or underdeveloped baby clinging to a mother’s dried up breast, begging for milk money.

Now, my definition of a third world country can be summed up in one phrase…a lack of a middle class. In Nicaragua, there are impoverished millions in a vast lower economic class and a very small élite or upper class who control the country’s wealth and resources. What makes the United States a first world country and Nicaragua a third world country? If we use my definition, there are striking similarities. Maybe it’s time to reconsider our definitions and differences among a first, second, and third world country. Maybe it’s time to cast away our stereotypical perceptions and visions of people living in a third world country. Maybe it’s time to dissolve our differences and concentrate on our similarities.

When I ask people to explain their definition of a third world country, often it is expressed in a ranking scheme of economic development with the first world on top ( a capitalist society), the second world, and the third world ( socialist or communist) on the bottom rung. This comparative economic and political ranking is utter nonsense, and in my opinion, the real source of misguided evil that has poisoned our world.

All forms of societies ( first, second, or third worlds) give us food, clothing, a home, language, and the tools of a trade. As members of a society, we all seek comfort in sharing our joys, sorrows, and pleasures with friends and family. We satisfy our personal desires, dreams, and accomplishments through gaining attention and recognition from our fellow human beings. We all want to improve the conditions of our lives. We should be ONE world because we all share the same basic needs and wants.

The definitions of the three types of worlds only increase the gap and divide us as human beings. Attempts to pigeon-hole us into narrowly defined economic and political categories create a war of worlds. Personally, I’m tired of people asking me if I’m a missionary because I live in their warped perception of a third world country. I’m tired of trying to convince people that I’m safe, secure, and happy in my decision to live in Nicaragua.

I’ll continue to sigh and nod my head when my mother introduces me as a missionary in Nicaragua. Her perceptions of the world were set a long time ago and there is nothing I can do to change her mind or change her viewpoints. But, that doesn’t mean that I can’t plant seeds…little seeds of discontent with the crisis we are facing in the world today. One little seed, tenderly planted in the minds of the young…maybe we can become one world without war…compassionate world citizens. It’s a start.