My Two Cents on Poverty – Part 2

August 15th 2015

In my last post I talked about the philosophical justifications for how to respond to poverty, as well as my actual response when faced with begging children. In many instances they don’t add up, and I’m still trying to muddle through where I stand.

So, looking forward, what should I do next time and the time after that? Let’s go back to theory for a minute. The concentric circles model would say that I only have a weak obligation to help those suffering from severe poverty in Uganda. Instead, their compatriots should help lift them up. Or rather, their wealthy compatriots should. Although Uganda is a poor country, there is also a growing upper class. Wealthy Ugandans have more than enough means to help their poor neighbors. But ironically – just as Canadians often ignore people begging – wealthy Ugandans are the most desensitized. As such, they are probably far less likely to help a begging child than a foreigner who has been exposed to the ‘porn of poverty’.

So, assuming I can’t rely on wealthy Ugandans to help, what should I do? Gillian Brock would say I have just as much responsibility to that school girl here as I have to children back in Canada. Elizabeth Ashford would tell me that my socio-economic background obligates me to help. My friend in Rwanda would tell me that it’s not sustainable to feed every street child I see. And I would agree with all three. But do these three pieces of advice converge, or are they mutually exclusive?

Recently, I seem to have found my own happy medium. There are little boys outside Acacia Mall who carry scales and quietly ask if you would like to get weighed for 1000 shillings. They are trying to raise money for school fees. Every few weeks I’ll oblige one of them, and after having been weighed I’ll pay them 2000 shillings.

Similarly, there are little girls selling bananas by the bank. Instead of buying them at the supermarket I’ll make a point to buy bananas from one of these little girls. I know that the middle men will take most of their earnings, but I hope that my weekly banana purchase helps a little.

Finally, last week Jeremy, Shelby and I got pizza to go from a restaurant near the bank. As we passed the banana girls with our boxes they ran up and asked for a slice. It was almost 9pm, and we assumed these ten year old girls had not eaten in hours. We had plenty of pizza to spare, so we happily offered them each a slice. I gave them my half empty water bottle as well, since on other occasions they had mentioned being thirsty.

I would like to think that that piece of pizza saved those girls the time they would have spent begging for dinner. That time saved might mean they went home early, and therefore did not fall asleep in class the next day. Their alertness may have saved them from being caned, which in turn may have made their lives that smallest bit easily. But this is just me projecting. It’s me stroking my ego by imagining my small benevolent action had huge ripple effects. Doesn’t everyone want to be the hero? In reality, the girls probably ate the pizza and went on trying to sell their bananas. Even though they now wave at us every time we pass by I shouldn’t see this as a victory. The fact that they now feel indebted to the pizza-bearing foreigners is not to either of our advantages. And there are power dynamics embedded in our pizza exchange that make me uncomfortable.

So, my solution isn’t perfect. And the fact that it gives me warm and fuzzy feelings inside doesn’t make it right. But I’ve decided that I’ll help when I can and when I feel comfortable doing so. When I cannot or do not feel ethically ok with it, I will not beat myself up. I will seek out opportunities to help in my community, where I can have a more permanent impact. This is not a surrender to the concentric circles model, but rather a realistic assessment of the context in which I can do the most good. And when I find myself faced with poverty, my actions will no longer come from a place of confusion. Rather my actions will be based on calculated decisions that are in line with my own moral code.

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