Saturday, March 10, 2012

Musings: Dollars and Sense

“Eat your vegetables. Starving children in Africa would love those vegetables.”

As a child, my parents did not subject me to this nutritional logic, although they did subject me to vegetables (yuck). But this reasoning is invoked commonly enough in America that most of us have heard of it, and most of us more inclined towards ice cream than green beans have responded: “Well, I’m not in Africa. And it’s not my fault that the people there don’t have food. And I’m allergic to healthy stuff.”

But now I am in Africa, although not an Africa that matches the image evoked by the saying above. I’m in South Africa to be exact, staying in the town of Plettenberg Bay, living in a homestay and spending my days observing a home-based care health worker at a nearby clinic (her name is Jackie, and she’s absolutely great).

South Africa is one of sub-Saharan Africa’s wealthiest nations, and the main center of Plettenberg Bay is reminiscent of Cape Cod: beautiful beaches, nice cafes, and over-priced boutiques abound. Oh, and there’s a slum just outside of town-a hillside cluttered with tin shacks packed too close together. Just blocks from the beautiful, pool-equipped houses like the one I am staying in (thanks to the tremendous hospitality of a local woman named Steph) are one-room dwellings, some without electricity and most sheltering many more people than their size would suggest. And if, admittedly, few people are starving there, even fewer are getting the healthy diet they need-at least if the number of diabetic/high blood pressure patients I have seen are anything to judge by. Fruits and (yes) veggies are expensive.

But when I have extra food, which is frequently, I don’t give it to those people or to any others in the townships. Here’s invented development expert Paulartya Freirshiva, M.D., PhD, Human, to ask me why.

Paulartya Freirshiva: Why?

Me: Well, it’s too much work.

Paulartya Freirshiva: Really?


Me: No, not really.


Me: But if I go around giving some people things, everyone will expect the same.

Paulartya: So?

Me: So, I don’t want to be treated like just some rich tourist.

Paulartya: But you are some rich tourist.

Me: But I came here to learn, not to dispense things to beggars. I don’t want to feel like I’m only being seen as a fountain of money.

Paulartya: So now your feelings count for more than the malnourished citizens of Plett.

Me: Wow, Paulartya, none of my other imaginary friends are this rude.

Paulartya: So now my rudeness is a bigger problem then global starvation.

Me: I do want to help people. But spending my spare money on loaves of bread won’t really make a difference.

Paulartya: Why not?

Me: There are too many people. Hunger is a huge problem in the world, especially since it leaves people more vulnerable to infectious diseases, but spending my allowance on it won’t even make a dent.

Paulartya: What if you spend your college fund on it?

Me: I can’t-I need that money.

Paulartya: So now your education is more important than thousands of starv-

Me: Shh! I get the point.

Paulartya: You’ve got a pretty big college fund, and you seem to understand the damage that persistent hunger can do to a community. So what’s the reason that’s holding you back? Why not become a one-woman charity?

Me: Because this isn’t the type of problem that can be solved by charity.

Paulartya: Now we’re getting somewhere.

I’m going to dismiss Paulartya Freirshiva, M.D., PhD, Human (his name is a mishmash of a bunch of the authors we’ve been studying).

I could give the people of Plett’s poorer townships some food, and so could most of us. But with huge unemployment rates (upwards of 70% in some cases), increasing incidence of HIV, and embedded racism (Guess how many of the residents of Plett’s mansions are white? Guess how many of the shack-dwellers aren’t?), it’s hard to escape the conclusion that deeper change is needed. To move towards that deeper change, we need to ask some questions, such as:

What caused the huge inequality in South Africa, and what forces perpetuate it?

Why do basically nice people ignore the suffering of their basically nice neighbors?

And more.

Once we find the answers to those questions, we have to ask still more questions.

If colonialism leading to imperialism leading to institutional racism (apartheid) was one of the key causes behind today’s persistent wealth gap, why don’t today’s white South Africans do more to redress past grievances (or if they do, why aren’t these efforts working?)?

Why do basically nice Americans ignore the suffering of basically nice Africans?

And then we have to ask ourselves,

Why does such huge racial inequality persist even in the United States, and what institutions reinforce it?

Why do so many basically nice rich Americans ignore or even worsen the suffering of basically nice poor Americans?

Could it turn out that neither “I’m not in Africa” nor “It’s not my fault the people there don’t have food” really begin to explain the persistence of global hunger and other forms of inequality?

If so, it’s no wonder simple charity won’t do the trick. To top things off, once we’ve gotten that far, we have to figure out how to fix all these problems. We can start by becoming informed about the modern world (hey, that’s why I need my college fund!). But education can only take us so far, and the globe’s issues are going to be tough to tackle. Sometimes I wish Paulartya Freirshiva could do it for us.

Edited to Add:
If I see a hungry person, I will give them some food, and you should too. This was more of an attempt to explain why we often don't than an argument as to why we shouldn't.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012


My first sight of Angkor Wat, Cambodia, was actually a touch. Our group visited three times, but I missed the first two due to a small case of 'chundering everywhere', or vomiting.

Anyway, on the third visit we left at 4:00 in the morning, to arrive at the main temple complex before sunrise. As a result, I got to explore Angkor Way in the dark, feeling my way around the ancient buildings. Almost nobody was there, but the stars were out in full, and it was so cool to watch the sun come up over the ruins.

Angkor Wat was the biggest Hindu temple complex of the Khmer Empire, which ruled Cambodia between the ninth and fifteenth centuries.

The ruins were amazing, but a lot of the empire’s most beautiful structures were destroyed during the Pol Pot regime, which was also the government that oversaw the Cambodian genocide.

The Cambodian genocide was a politically-based slaughter that killed a third of the country’s population. The ridiculous horror of that time was really hammered in by the killing fields monument we visited in Phnom Penh, explained the history of the atrocities.

In Phnom Penh, we also had some adventures in kite-flying…

And near Siam Reap, we went to a floating village. That’s right. Floating. Village. All the houses and buildings were on stilts in the lakes, and locals rowed visitors through the mangrove forests.

Needless to say, it was both beautiful and intriguing. Imagine if your daily commute was by canoe instead of bus.

As if all that wasn’t brilliant enough, we also played paintball and a rode in a hot air balloon.

(Don't worry, the balloon did leave the ground.)

Of course celebrating Christmas away from my family was sad, but spending the week so awesomely took most of the sting out of it. Wow.

(And no, I have neither reason nor excuse for posting about December in late February. Just think of it as a small dose of time travel!)

Monday, January 9, 2012


After spending the holidays in Cambodia, TBB West headed to Gujarat, India, where we have now been studying agriculture for about two weeks. We have been in our homestays for one week, which has been exciting and overwhelming at the same time. I love my family, which consists of a mother, father, sister, brother, and grandma. Maggie and I are right next door to Kelsey and Nicki, who live with a host of energetic cousins and other assorted family members.

Thinking about this blog, I have realized that to those not familiar with the program I am on, the posts might seem like a confusing (though of course awesome) mish-mash of “Now I’m in country X!” “Now I’m in country Y!”. But it’s not quite like that.

The overarching theme of Thinking Beyond Borders is studying development: first and foremost what it is, and then how it affects the lives of people all over the world.

The word “development” carries interesting connotations in America because it can have such disparate meanings. We think of “developing countries” and in that context view development as humanitarian aid (delivering food, medications, etc. to people without resources).

But when we see the word “development” in a context like “the forest was razed to make room for a new condominium development” most of us would have a very different reaction. We would think of the destruction of something beautiful and diverse by humans who want to homogenize the area and maximize its economic profit (rows of identical buildings will bring in the cash). The humans who run this process are even called “developers”!

So is development good or bad?

If you are a skeptic you might argue that these are two different senses of the word “development”, and that it’s not fair to conflate them, but I would disagree. On this trip, I have not only been reading expert opinions on the topics we are studying, but also talking about those same issues with my local friends and families, and seeing their manifestations first-hand through our work projects. And more and more I have come to believe that “development” is actually a word that encompasses a whole spectrum of meaning, including both the first and second contexts above, as well as everything in between. That’s why we have to be so careful when toss the term around.

Recently my host family here took Maggie, Nicki, Kelsey and me to a nearby market (the surrounding farming villages, like ours, all sell their products at the central town where the market is located). On the way there, on the side of the road, I saw a billboard advertising apartments in a new complex. The sleek building depicted on the sign was a definite contrast from the brick and tile houses of the village, where you are more likely to see a camel or a water buffalo than a car or a computer, and below the image was the slogan, “Here you can fulfill all your dreams. Create a better lifestyle.” (for the curious, the signs around here are a mixture of Hindi, Gujarati, and English).

In an apartment complex, my family couldn’t live with all their cousins, aunts, uncles, brothers, and sisters together. They (and we) couldn’t play with baby goats or watch the sun set as they walked home from the temple. But before the forces of Westernization/modernization that brought the apartment complex arrived, the family didn’t have running water, an enormous labor saver, or electricity, which allows us to play music on speakers, put food in a small refrigerator, and have lighting at night.

So what to do? Regardless of who we are or where we live, we all want to “fulfill our dreams” and improve our existence. But it’s not always clear what the “better lifestyle” we’re seeking actually is. That’s why the words on the sign to me seemed to unite the disparate versions of development that I described above. Development isn’t good or bad; it’s just different. It’s about people and cultures changing. To presume that development of any kind will “fulfill all your dreams” is downright foolish, but it is no less foolish to vilify development as something destructive. All we can do is learn as much as we can about the world, in order to make the best decisions possible.