Poverty and assessments of risk

Around here one of the most dangerous things you can do is to get on a bus. They are poorly maintained, go way too fast and drivers have poor understandings of the risks of the road. A significant part of the blame must go to the bus owners and drivers (and the policeman who daily accept bribes to look the other way), but passengers are not compelled to board; they could easily vote with their feet and demand a better service. Whereas instead actually something of the opposite happens; the market demands the cheapest prices (hence poor maintenance of vehicles) and people want to get to where they are going as fast as possible.

That bus passengers exercise this preference is partly because they also do not understand well the risks of driving too fast etc. However, it is also often said that poor people assess risk differently to us: what to us is an unacceptable risk is for them just a regular feature of their environment. There are parallels in the way that few expats take anti-malarial prophylaxis. There may well be something in this – indeed in the past I have been known to utter just such sentiments – but it occurs to me there may be another aspect to the poverty dimension that we (or at least I) have hitherto been missing.

Recently when up in town my car ran out of diesel just as I was on my way to a meeting. My stupid fault, although the blame is shared with the previous driver who had not taken the trouble to fill it up when the tank was dangerously close to empty. Thankfully for me a neighbour gave me a lift to the nearest filling station where we half filled a flimsy old 5l water bottle with diesel and drove it back to my car, with an open top, wedged between my legs for stability, and thus solved the immediate problem.

Clearly this was not the safest solution, and it may actually have been illegal. If we had suffered an accident and I had gone up like a human torch, other people (like me!) would presumably have remarked upon the idiocy of what we were doing. In my defence I would point out that while petrol is highly volatile, diesel is not. It was also a very short journey on quiet, tarmac roads, so the risks were actually pretty small. Furthermore, I was following the local societal norm; certainly my neighbour did not seem too concerned to be driving around with an open bottle of diesel.

Finally, and this is my main point, I did not want to be any later for my meeting than I had to be, and this was just a one off. Indeed we all take bigger risks for special events or in order to minimise the hassle in overcoming unforeseen hiccoughs such as suddenly running out of diesel. Similarly bus journeys are not regular occurrences for the poorest people; going to the big city may be something they only do a few times in their life. There will often be a special reason to undertake a long distance bus journey; a wedding or a funeral. Even an annual trip home to visit one’s parents in your home village hardly counts as a regular thing. The risks may be high, but so in each case are the (social or emotional) rewards.

Thus we reach that old truism of statistics: that while specific rare events are … well … rare, it is rare for no rare event to happen, or, to put it another way, rare events are happening all the time. A specific bus crashing is rare, but collectively they are all too common. Moreover, it is rare for an individual poor person to travel on a long distance bus, but poor people are numerous around here, and collectively they drive the market preferences. And, as I saw in my own experience, it can be hard to go against the local norm for what, for oneself, is a comparatively rare event.

Poor people may evaluate risks and rewards differently to us, but they also, individually, may undertake apparently risky activities quite rarely. Not so different after all.

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