Families are the real wealth of nations

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Families are the real wealth of nations

In 1776, Scottish economist and philosopher Adam Smith wrote his timeless magnum opus, “The Wealth of Nations,” a fundamental work in classical economics and one of the world’s first descriptions of what builds a nation’s wealth. Nearly a quarter of a millennium since it was first published, I humbly look at what constitutes the real wealth of nations today, particularly in the context of Arabian Gulf states.
In contrast with the majority of today’s world, the Arabian Gulf states are commonly viewed as latecomers to the modern age. Fellow Arab nations have been especially critical of the Gulf states for their oil-dependent progress and modernity. Despite the impressive strides the Gulf states have made over mere decades, we find ourselves constantly defending our achievements in the face of the guilt-trips and shame games we are subjected to. Regardless of the criticism, there is one thing the Gulf states should own and take pride in: The fact we have entered this age with our tribal and familial ties still intact, at a time when the disintegration of families is a common social epidemic. Close-knit families and communities are proving to be the real wealth of nations.
The notions of individualism and of families the way Hollywood portrays them did not exist before the Industrial Revolution. Prior to the 18th century, Western families greatly resembled the ones we are familiar with here in the Gulf. For one thing, families were much larger than they are now, and there was little distinction between family and society. In addition, the family acted as the welfare system, the healthcare system, the education system, the construction industry, the pension fund and the insurance company. If a young man needed a job, the family took on the economic task of providing him with employment. If an elderly woman fell sick, the family would care for her. If a number of young children were orphaned, their aunt, uncle or grandparents would take the place of their parents and raise them. Family and community members helped each other, knowing the favor would be returned one way or another in due course.

The role of the government is to put in place policies and regulations, as well as monitoring systems, to make sure nobody is left behind.

Maria Hanif Al-Qassim


Enter the Industrial Revolution. With the rapid shift away from family and community-based economic activities to jobs that required longer hours, often away from immediate family, individualism took centre stage. Suddenly, there were countless vulnerable people that needed the care previously provided by family and community members, forcing the state to step in. With time, this not only created an additional burden on states (now having to take care of the elderly, the less financially fortunate, the orphans, and other vulnerable groups), but also significantly impacted the happiness and emotional wellbeing of the general population. So much so that the United Kingdom, for example, has recently seen fit to create a ministerial role to counter the serious effects of loneliness.
It is often said that families are the building blocks of societies, and for very good reason. In fact, religions around the world are united in recognizing the importance of stable families in maintaining safe societies. There are also countless studies that conclude the state of societies depends greatly on the state of their families. Former US Secretary of Education William Bennett wrote: “For a civilization to succeed, the family must succeed.”
In the UK, children from broken homes are nine times more likely to commit crimes than those from stable families, with seven out of 10 offenders in 2010 coming from broken homes. Issues that are prevalent in societies where families have disintegrated also impact the elderly; in countries like the US, “elderly abandonment” has become such a cause for concern that law firms are now catering to the thousands suffering such a fate. The issues arising from shrinking the roles of family in the face of the glamorized individualistic image are many, and they don’t affect vulnerable groups alone.
Happiness has always been high on humans’ list of priorities, and something we have been trying to find a formula for since the dawn of time. In 2015, a TED Talk by Robert Waldinger, a psychiatrist and director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, spread around the world like wildfire. Waldinger was the fourth director of one of the longest studies of adult life, which started in 1938 during the Great Depression and closely followed the lives of hundreds of participants. Nearly 80 years after it started, the study concluded that “how happy we are in our relationships has a powerful influence on our health,” according to Waldinger. “It turns out that people who are more socially connected to family, to friends, to community are happier, they’re physically healthier and they live longer than people who are less well connected.”
Yuval Harari, author of the bestselling book “Sapiens,” notes in his masterpiece that “people with strong families who live in tight-knit and supportive communities are significantly happier than people whose families are dysfunctional and who have never found (or never sought) a community to be part of.”
That governments have a key role in ensuring citizens and residents within their borders receive their basic rights and are generally cared for is something that cannot be contested. However, the role of the government is to put in place policies and regulations, as well as monitoring systems, to make sure nobody is left behind. Given how young the Gulf states are, and how recently (and rapidly) they have modernized, we stand a chance of saving our social wealth from disintegration. Timing has been on our side, meaning we can achieve modern and progressive states without sacrificing the essential building blocks of all societies. We must emphasize that the role of the state is to strengthen families, not to replace them.

• Maria Hanif Al-Qassim is an Emirati from Dubai who writes on development, gender and social issues.
Twitter: @maria_hanif
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point-of-view