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.