Greeks and Italians have been taking some blows lately as their economies crumble. Why can’t they be more like their wealthy, tidy northern neighbors in Germany and Holland, critics want to know. Fellow European states are putting pressure on the Mediterranean governments, suggesting that they can borrow money as long as their citizens work harder and save more.
But is laziness really to blame? Turns out the stereotype of the lazy Latins vs. the enterprising northern Europeans doesn’t hold up. Slate writer Matthew Yglesias pulled the numbers and found that Greek, Spanish and Italian workers all put in significantly more hours than the Germans and Dutch. “The truth is that countries aren’t rich because their people work hard. When people are poor, that’s when they work hard,” Yglesias wrote.
This simple truth extends beyond Europe’s borders, and it brought to mind how I feel every time I visit Heifer project sites and meet the people there. In Senegal last year I met a mother of four named Fatou Dione who wakes up before 6 a.m. every day to pound and cook millet for breakfast, fetch water, hunt for firewood, care for the family’s sheep and send the children off to school. She also works in the fields and cares for aging family members, responsibilities that keep her moving until after the sun sets. Fatou lives in a hut made of sticks and relies on her brother-in-law to send money when the family’s stores of millet run low.
I often think of Fatou when my morning routine goes awry and I’m late getting myself and my two boys out the door. Dirty diapers and temper tantrums are a hassle, but hot water pours automatically from my faucets, my refrigerator is stocked with food and the only animals I have to care for are a dog and a cat. Pretty easy stuff, really. I’m certain Fatou works harder and is more tired at the end of the day than I am, and still I have so much more. It’s humbling and eye-opening and it certainly confirms what my mother always told me, “Life isn’t fair.”
My mother also told me that we all get what we deserve in the end. I wish that was true, but after meeting Fatou and so many other clever and hard-working Heifer project participants around the world, I know for a fact it’s not. What you start with usually dictates what you’ll end up with, so let’s all count our blessings. At the same time, let’s work together to make sure brilliant, driven, loving people in places Heifer works have a decent shot at getting what they deserve.