Thursday, February 26, 2004

The prisoners, the old, and the sick

We read that in the United States there are approximately 2.2 million people devoted to capturing and keeping behind bars two million prisoners. Imagine what capturing even 1% of that market (22,000 prison inmates) would mean to any small developing country.

The elder-care industries are another buoyant market in increasing demand in developed countries, as young people are becoming proportionally fewer than the old. This is also the case of the extended-care industry, where continuous medical advances seem to generate almost infinite demand.
It is therefore strange that developing countries give so little attention to these services when negotiating their trade agreements, considering their currently competitive wages. On the contrary, these same countries are forced to open up their own service sector for banks, insurance companies, auditing agencies, and so on.

Consider, for example, the potential economic impact on a poor country of a school that annually graduate several thousand excellent bilingual nurses to work around the world or in their own country: this could surpass the benefits that a trade treaty would provide to the agricultural and manufacturing industries combined. What’s more, the nurses would likely be able to pay off their student loans more easily than economists like me.

At this point, Jim, my editor, raises all type of numerous obstacles that he urges me to consider before my readers do. I: “Dear Jim, the Washington Post recently reported about an open-heart surgery that was budgeted at an unaffordable 200,000 dollars in the United States, but then finally carried out, successfully, in India, by doctors educated in the United States, for only 10,000 dollars, an airplane ticket, and a little side trip to the Taj Mahal included. The tide of globalization is unstoppable, unless you prefer your open-heart patient to stay home and die. As Jim also mentioned the hurdles of language, I also found it timely to remind him of the call centers in Bangalore where all those modern switchboard ladies that answer your information needs on the phone day by day are speaking better and not at all phony English. I have also read somewhere something to the effect that lately, the true defenders of true British English, are all from India.

Also, given the tensions caused by millions of people looking to emigrate any way they can to the labor markets of developed countries in order to send remittances back to their families, it is surprising not to hear that the best way to prevent illegal immigration (which is often destined one way or another to caring for prisoners, the sick, or the old) would be to send this very clientele to developing countries where they could be cared for.

A real opening up of services would give poor countries access to sources of sustainable economic growth, while at the same time relieving the financial pressures on developed countries of attending to prisoners, the old, and the sick—pressures that threaten the fiscal sustainability of their own welfare economies.

Are these new ideas? Not at all! Henri Charriere (nicknamed “Papillon”) was sent to French Guiana as a prisoner, and Australia was founded by exported convicts. There are already European governments that one way or another pay for their old people to stay in places like the Canary Islands and history is full of examples of people who had to go to other places because of diseases like tuberculosis or leprosy.

From El Universal, Caracas, February 2004