I continue to contemplate the issue of poverty, the kind of extreme poverty that we have seen this past week. I posted about it a number of days ago and have since had a couple of comments about the fact that we have given money occasionally (believe me, not even a fraction of the number of times we had opportunity) to a few people affected by poverty and illness to the point of begging in the streets.
I really appreciate the comments of both individuals who took the time to express their thoughts on the matter. I respect both commenters, and they have given me more to think about. I hope that, since they published their comments on the blog, they don't mind if I repeat what they offered right here in my post!
Ruth, I am really enjoying reading about your trip in Ethiopia and have been checking for new posts every day. I feel so strongly on the issue of giving money on the street that I can't help but respectfully disagree with you on that one. It's a complex issue for sure, in the moment it makes us feel better to give because we are so struck by the poverty and being in a position of power and wealth we want to help. But if you don't give through a proper channel like an NGO who is to say the boy who runs up to you asking really does not have a mother or a home. He could in fact be a boy with a family who is being employed as a beggar by them rather than going to school because it is more lucrative for the family. If the money went instead to an NGO then they can ensure it is being used in a way to give kids in the area a chance at an education and a job, something that may raise that one family out of poverty. It's a sad reality - there are millions of poor people like the ones you described and we as foreigners traveling can't help them all, and the NGOs probably can't either. But maybe the money us foreigners do have to spend on the issue can do more if it goes through a charity where they understand the culture and the issues and know how to use it in the best way to empower the people in need. We think the little bit we give won't make that much of an impact on increasing the culture of dependence and furthering the problem of poverty, but I think it does. You might want to consider asking Marco[s] if there is an NGO that helps people near the Afroland or near Marcato. There is also a place near the Churchill shops where you can get food stamps to hand out - I can look up the name if you want (if you really feel the need to give something in the moment when people run up) that might be a better choice than money. Sorry, just my opinion...
I don't want to make this comment thread into a debate forum - really I don't - but I just feel compelled to clarify that many of us do give through a variety of NGOs - some of us have even worked for them - but the reason I give to impoverished, desperate people when they ask me is not because I am choosing that over an NGO. It's because to say "no" in that moment, is to lose a little piece of my soul. I know not everyone feels that way, but I - overwhelmingly - do. It feels wrong in my heart to say no, and I have faith that I am meant to trust my heart...
I think that both writers make excellent points. Thank you both for posting. I truly enjoy differences of opinion! My own view is something closer to the viewpoint of the second comment (clearly, given that I have given to people on the streets, both here and at home). But we also give to NGOs and I take well the point of the first commenter about children who appear to be in dire straits but may not, in reality, be as desperate as they appear - that very thought occurred to me on one occasion in particular, when faced with a particular boy that we did give money to.
I, too, think that there are community-based programs that can and should be supported as a practical way to assist specific neighbourhoods, and I learned a couple of days ago from another family here about the food stamp option. I also had the thought of purchasing a large bag of kolo (a nutritious, crunchy and tasty local grain mixture) to divide into small ziploc snack bags and hand out.
One thing that I've been thinking about is this (thank you, first commenter, for making me think about this!): what is it that I feel when I give a birr (approx. $0.06US) to someone on the streets here? Does it make me feel better, to give to someone in need? Honestly, on that front I'd have so say no. Whether here or at home, the emotion that consistently runs through me when I give someone money or a small gift, is shame. I feel horrible in that moment of giving. I would prefer to slink away with nary a thought as to eye contact or communication with the recipient. I am horrified by the disparity in our circumstances, ashamed that I should have so much in contrast to others having so little.
Sometime in the past month, I wrote about a particular man in our home city whom I give money to every Sunday after church on route to the parking lot. Remember reading about Max? Maybe not. I can't even provide you with the link to that post because of my limited blogging ability in Addis. Anyway, to this day, when I see Max on a Sunday morning, I am both humbled by and embarrassed to be doing the little teeny bit that I am doing. I would rather Matthew give Max our little bits of money or goods than have to look Max in the eye and give him my trite offering. I would rather do my little thing and be able to somehow deny internally the reality of our disparity in circumstance at the same time.
It is only by choice that I force myself to look Max in the eye every Sunday and greet him and ask him something about himself. I dread the moment every time, and I find that here, those feelings are multiplied a hundredfold. But I decided that here, too, when I give someone that tiny bit of money or whatever, I will look that individual in the eye. For me, though I have no way of knowing how I am received, making direct eye contact is a sign of respect for them as individuals, and a way to force myself to remember their faces, so that when I am confronted with an opportunity to give to an NGO, I will remember those faces and choose to give. The faces of the people I have given to this week are immediately accessible in my mind. They will haunt me for years to come. I only wish I could have taken their pictures so that I could also put them on the walls of my home, and have a tangible, constant reminder of responsibility that I have in this world. As much as I would secretly prefer to have the poor remain faceless and anonymous, I am choosing, when I give my pittance, to render them an identity that will prompt me to sign my name at the bottom of the next cheque I write to an NGO.
I long ago came to the conclusion (thanks to my old friend, Edward - remember him from my post about Max?) that I'm not responsible for what another person does with what I give to him/her (and maybe sometimes it's not put to honourable use); I'm only responsible for making the best possible decision with my resources and in my circumstances.
The bottom line, for me, is that I don't know if giving to someone on the street, or at my car window, is the right thing to do. I truly don't. I think we will all readily agree that it is a complicated issue and it elicits strong opinions on both sides of the coin. I suppose I am hopeful, ultimately, that it doesn't have to be an either/or decision between giving to an individual or giving to an NGO, but rather a both/and decision....ie. give to both.
In fact, as I think about it, maybe a both/and approach is required, given the circumstances. After all, if it were my Ethiopian-born children reduced to the point of begging for birr, I would certainly hope that kind strangers would give them their small change to preserve their life on that day. But I would also value contributions made to an NGO in their community that would see to their longer term health and well-being and education and future opportunities. After all, huge numbers of the children who are adopted by families around the world come from families with a reality of immense poverty, where parents are simply unable to provide for their children. For those families, waiting for an NGO to step in did not work (well, unless you consider orphanages NGOs - in which case the NGO was not helpful in keeping the family together, though it did provide future opportunity for the children), but neither did they have their immediate needs sufficiently met with the help of family, friends, or strangers. There are micro and macro issues at play here.
This issue grows more and more complicated in my mind as I continue to think about it, as I continue to be confronted with it here in Addis on a massive scale. Perhaps the only certainty I walk away with is that I don't want to turn a blind eye to poverty, on a macro or micro level, however much I'd like to. There's simply too much at stake.