|A tram in Algiers|
I have heard it said many a time in reference to Algeria that it is a ‘third world country’, and I finally decided to look up the term and found to my surprise that this is an outdated description. During the Cold War era the First World consisted of those countries that aligned with NATO such as those in Europe, United States etc, The Second World countries were those that sided with the Communist Bloc like the Soviet Union, China, Cuba etc and The Third World were the rest of the world! A lot of these countries had a colonial past such as those in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Nowadays the term Third World has been replaced with the more politically correct ‘Developing Country’ or ‘Less Developed Country’.
It may surprise some to note that Algeria is considered to be a ‘High Human Development’ country under the Human Development Index (HDI) which according to Wikipedia ‘is a comparative measure of life expectancy, literacy, education, standards of living, and quality of life for countries worldwide. It is a standard means of measuring well-being, especially child welfare. It is used to distinguish whether the country is a developed, a developing or an underdeveloped country, and also to measure the impact of economic policies on quality of life.’ According to the World Bank ‘Algeria is classified as an upper middle income country’ (Wikipedia).
I don’t blame people (which is very nice of me I think!) who come from highly developed countries such as Europe, Canada, United States, Australia etc. for thinking that Algeria is a poor country. To all outward appearances it may seem so. For me whenever I return to England and Ireland I am immediately struck by the apparent affluence that I see everywhere. The one thing that always hits me is the way so many of the streets are so nicely organised with rows upon rows of nice neat houses, all exactly the same height, same architecture, same distance from the street, same front and back gardens, with pavements that are smooth and unobstructed. In contrast to Algeria where it looks as if some lunatic got a position in town planning and just went berserk. Someone will start to build a house beside a road, then someone else buys a plot on the same road and builds a completely different kind of house. As time goes by more and more people buy plots, build a structure according to their financial ability, so that in time you have a street with some houses one story, others have moved up a few floors, some are finished, others not, some have a nice façade and others still have cement and brickwork showing. While all this building has been going on, the road has deteriorated immensely what with the vast quantities of lorries rumbling up and down with loads of cement and bricks and metalwork, and the digging up of the road to insert pipes for water etc. not once, but several times. The pavement, if there was one to begin with, has all but disappeared under mounds of sand and cement, or piles of bricks. I have often thought that Algiers is just one immense building site, because in addition to new building blocks and houses, and other amenities there are new roads being built and the construction of the tramway. There is dust and dirt everywhere and nowhere looks neat and clean. Even in old established parts of the city such as Bab El Oued, Haraach, etc. the buildings have been so overcrowded that buildings have been added on to the top, the sides, or wherever there is a space to plonk a room, so the once neat white buildings with their light blue shutters and balconies look like they are sprouting in all directions.
When I first came to Algeria in 1987 there was a lot of frustration among the younger generation who lived in cramped accommodation with their parents and several siblings, and who often had to wait for the older ones to get married before they themselves could consider it. And, even then, often there was no hope for them to do so as there was nowhere for them live with a new wife or husband. Families converted balconies into rooms and built rooms on the terraces, but it just wasn’t enough. Since then houses and streets have erupted from land where there once were orange and lemon orchards, and there seems to have been an explosion of building works everywhere, so much so that nowadays many couples opt to rent an apartment at the beginning of their married life. It’s still very common for the new wife to live with her husband and his family, but more and more are choosing to live apart from their families.
Over 10 years ago it was quite easy to buy a plot of land and build a home exactly the way you wanted to for a reasonable price, but since we arrived the prices have sky rocketed and the cost of building has also increased. At the same time more couples are choosing to continue working even after parenthood in order to get on the property ladder, or are living in apartments adjacent to their inlaws. The time of the terrorism in the 90s, the big flood in Bab El Oued in 2001and the earthquake in 2003 meant that a lot of people had to be put into temporary housing, euphemistically called ‘chalets’ and you would think that these people crammed into a tiny space would be ecstatic at being rehoused, but usually the military has had to oversee rehousing of these estates because so many people refuse to move, or protest against it as they are unhappy with the area where they are being rehoused or the type of accommodation. 10 years ago across from the car park in front of the apartment block where we lived, there was a ramshackle shanty town comprised of brickwork and corrugated iron, which had grown up without any official permission, and when these people were being rehoused a lot of them refused to move because they didn’t want to live in a high rise apartment after being accustomed to a small outdoor space where they could raise livestock or grow vegetables.
In some areas just outside Algiers you will still see children sitting at the side of the road selling homemade produce such as the Algerian bread or vegetables or fruit, or walking along the beaches selling homemade doughnuts or mint tea. This is more common during the summer when the school is on holidays, but child labour like this is not something you see in developed countries in the West, not nowadays anyway. At the same time, from what I have seen, Algerians are very ambitious for their children and education is very highly valued…..and free right up to and including University level.
There are areas where people live in homes with no running water, gas connection or phone lines, but often these homes were built in isolated parts of the country where these amenities had not reached as yet. At the vast rate of building expanse these homes are not isolated for very long and before you know it there is a whole town of housing which has sprung up without any kind of planning and all lacking these important amenities. But that doesn’t mean that they have no water or gas or phone……A very common sight here is a small lorry with a small tank on the back with a long hose attached which will fill up a water cistern or other containers for a small fee. Gas is very cheaply bought in gas bottles and attached to cookers and even heating systems. And even some children here now have mobile phones, they have become so common. And somehow…..everyone has electricity, although in some areas this can come and go at an alarming regularity. But then when you see how many people have hooked their electricity supply illegally to one source it’s not surprising that the demand often exceeds supply and the system goes into overload.
When you think of a third world country you don’t associate it with a tramway, trains, or even a metro, all of which Algeria has now. Admittedly the distance that the metro reaches is very short at the moment and the tramway is still in the process of spreading its tentacles’, although the progress so far has made a huge difference to the quality of travel in and around the city of Algiers, and for an affordable fee. When we arrived in the country 10 years ago, both the metro and the tramway seemed a pipe dream, and people would not even consider using the train lines between the capital and it’s second and third cities on either end along the coastline, Oran and Constantine, because during the 90s and for a long time after there was a danger of the train being hijacked. Nowadays people travel by train without a second thought.
There is a free health care system here too, with a local free clinic within walking distance of most people. It’s true that this free clinic is basic, but it can be useful as a first port of call for minor injuries and illnesses.
Stock in most shops here are very limited in variety in comparison to the West, and a lot of foreign foods sold in the few supermarkets here are expensive. I found myself staring at a pre-packaged meal in one of the supermarkets here and wondering to myself, who on earth would buy that kind of thing here in Algeria …..a meal like that wouldn’t go very far in the average home here, and most people would look down their noses at something not cooked from scratch at home anyway. But they are sold here, so someone must be buying them….someone with money.
I suppose what I’m trying to say, in the most long winded fashion ever, that Algeria, for all its faults and idiosyncrasies is not the backward country that the title ‘Third World Country’ brings to mind for me at any rate. I think it’s true to say that if you compare the worst of Algeria with the best of a Western country, then Algeria doesn’t fare too well. But then, I tend more to compare Algeria to how it was when I first came in 1987, and, even more recently to how it was 10 years ago when we first moved here, and I can see how it has progressed in leaps and bounds. It has a long way to go still, but then it only has had its independence for 50 years and is only now, finally, making up for lost time.
I don’t think that there are many Third World, Underdeveloped or Developing countries where I could have good enough internet access to maintain a blog! But then…..in some minds….that might be considered a blessing!
Finally, forget everything else, my definition of a fully developed country is one that sells Cadbury’s chocolate. Guess what I found the other day in a tiny local supermarket???