“First World Problems:” Why Can’t Everyone Have Them?

By Eliana Kaimowitz*


Those of you on Twitter, Facebook and/or Tumblr may have seen the silly meme of a woman crying because someone forgot to fill the Britta filter and now she has to wait 30 seconds to drink water, and the countless other ridiculous and trivial complaints of people with “first world problems.” Because of its popularity in social media in the last couple of years, the term first world problems has now officially entered the public lexicon. The Oxford dictionary defines them as “a relatively trivial or minor problem or frustration, implying a contrast with serious problems such as those that may be experienced in the developing world,” while the Urban dictionary describes them as “problems from living in a wealthy, industrialized nation that third worlders would probably roll their eyes at.”

Coming from the Global North, but having lived half my life in the Global South, I can see the humor in these depictions of the privileged Northerners with no sense of what reality is like for most people in the world. But as a human rights activist, these reminders of the vast inequality of resources and opportunity people experience are no laughing matter. Inequality exists everywhere. Both in the North and South there are elite enclaves of people with first world problems who know or care little about the concerns for survival that many of their fellow citizens grapple with every day. I see these snapshots and I wonder why we can´t all have the luxury of worrying about trivial matters. Instead governments, policy makers and activists worry about how to feed, house and educate millions of people in the Global South, as well in the North.

In the field of human rights, most shy away from the idea of creating a hierarchy of rights. But in other fields, scholars have listed in order the basic needs people have. For example, those who study classic psychology, learn about Abraham Maslow´s pyramid which describes human needs as a layered hierarchy.  Physiological needs like eating and drinking are on the bottom, the need for safety, protection, love and belonging are in the middle, and on top of the triangle is the need for self-actualization. Maslow argued that a person will develop a need higher on the pyramid only when the more basic needs below are satisfied. While his theory has been criticized for failing to consider culture, age and other social factors, it provides an interesting perspective from which to examine the importance that should be given to certain human rights.

In thinking about how to address the myriad of needs people have, human rights activists and scholars have asked themselves questions like: “Is food more important than political freedoms?” Most human rights practitioners would find it difficult to say whether the right to vote should be more important than the right to food. Instead, there is a growing consensus that rights, be they civil, political, economic, social or cultural, are interdependent. As theorists like Amartya Sen have noted, civil and political rights can empower people to complain about issues like food shortages and pressure government to provide for the social and economic welfare of its citizens. At the same time, Sen argues that people should be entitled to economic, social and cultural rights (ESCRs), which include the right to food, housing, education and health, so that they can fully participate in civil society and in politics.

Nowadays, civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, are all part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Nonetheless, in many academic and legal circles they are not given equal importance. Many scholars and lawyers in the Global North do not consider ESCRs “real” rights, but rather aspirations or ideals that are better achieved through the political processthan through the law. Others view these rights as unattainable aspirations and thus impossible to legally implement.

Yet, if we consider Maslow´s pyramid of needs along with Sen´s argument for the interdependence of rights, and take a look at the lives of those living in poverty around the globe, it is hard not to think that we need to ensure that both types of rights are guaranteed. People must be fed, house and educated so that they can be informed voters and fulfill their need for self-actualization, however they define this. Unlike in the North, in the Global South ESC rights are increasingly being recognized and taken seriously. Countries like Colombia, South Africa and Kenya have enshrined them in their constitutions and efforts are being made by NGOs to see that court decisions affirming these rights actually change the realities on the ground.

Perhaps some in the North are economically so far ahead of the South with their first world problems that they have forgotten what it is like to be hungry, scared and hopeless. I am sure the unemployed, the homeless, the families going hungry in the United States and Europe, as well as in India, China and South Africa, can remind global elites that we still have a long way to go in ensuring that all people have a respectable standard of living.  Neither the North nor the South can ignore the challenge of making ESCRs a reality. The North must be persuaded of their importance so that its scholars, politicians and activists will join the call for action. Serious global recognition, protection and implementation of ESCRs is crucial to meeting the basic needs of people whose potential is being limited by a lack of resources and a lack of government interest in their well-being.

No country can hide from the reality of growing economic inequality and the increasing scarcity of resources like water, which will only lead to greater social unrest. Tackling the causes and consequences of poverty around the globe head on as violations of people´s human rights is serious work. Yet we must not lose our sense of humor. The first world problems memes are funny reminders about how much is left to be done to reduce the vast inequality that exists today.  I can only hope that one day everyone can laugh about their first world problems and only have to wait 30 seconds for a clean sip of water.


* Eliana Kaimowitz is a researcher at Dejusticia (The Center for Law, Justice and Society)