Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Poverty Issue

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!

Comment #1:
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...

Comment #2:
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 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.


  1. Hi Ruth,

    Wonderful post -- and thoughts on such a complex issue. I agree very much.


  2. Hey Ruth, I’m glad you opened up a discussion on this topic and that you felt my opinion was worth posting on your blog. When Matthew and I were living in Ethiopia for 12 weeks waiting for Ephrem’s visa we really struggled with this and talked about it often. I didn’t say this in my last comment but another thing that formed our opinion on it was this – we were really surprised by the number of times we had upper class Ethiopian people asked us for money and food etc. (people wealthy by Ethiopian standards). i.e. We had Ethiopian girls run up to us who were inside one of the nice hotels swimming asking us for one Birr. The same type of asking extended to priests we met, people with good jobs, and even one Dr we took Ephrem to see in a private hospital there. Not to suggest all upper class Ethiopians ask foreigners for money and hand outs but we were shocked that it happens at all. This really hit home for us. For a culture to get to the point where even the people in the upper classes are asking foreigners for hand outs we were struck by how much the culture there seemed to be one of a learned dependence on foreign help. We thought it was a shame that people didn’t feel more empowered to find ways to help themselves and each other. Feeling dependent on something outside of yourself and your community has to be a part of what drives learned helplessness and poverty. I don’t want it to seem like I don’t feel terrible for the moms with the babes you see on the sidewalk, the disabled people and the other people living hand to mouth trying to get by... it broke our hearts and made me feel horrified with the nice lifestyle I have. We often passed the corner near Meskel square and saw an Ethiopian woman there handing out bread to the beggars and poor people. We really started to feel that if we wanted to help the poor people with our money we needed to give to people like this woman and not pass out money directly to the beggars ourselves. Our hope was that this type of giving would be less likely to feed into the feeling of dependence on help from something “other” and hopefully be more empowering for Ethiopian people to see on the ground level (help being given by Ethiopians to Ethiopians). To the poor person we are perceived as being something so far removed from what they ever can aspire to be, where an Ethiopian person like them passing the bread to their hand sends a different message and I think would give them more pride and hope for their country as well. Not that we never broke our own rule. We never passed birr to beggars asking for it, we never gave anything to anyone well enough to walk or run up to us and ask for it, but I did walk up to people who appeared to be so acutely ill they could not move from the spot they were lying in and give some food (trying to be very discrete always so not many other Ethiopian would see). I appreciate you starting a discussion about this on your blog. Sorry to ramble on, I just feel it’s such an important topic and I keep mulling it over myself.

  3. I keep thinking about your post Ruth. What you said about the feeling of “shame” really struck me, and I felt it too. I think for me it was shame created by feeling like I was in a position of power over these people because of my wealth, and shame because I know I am no better than them and don’t deserve it. I was embarrassed of that power differential between me and them, because I know it shouldn’t exist. I think part of it was also embarrassment for them, that they had to be reduced to a point where they have lost their pride and need to ask me money or food. For me giving the money in that moment when the child runs up only increases the insult on their pride, and furthers the power differential between me and them creating that cycle of learned helplessness. I want my son to come from a place where people have pride in themselves and their country, where they feel empowered to find a way out of their circumstance, where people don’t feel powerless and dependent on others.
    Maybe it isn’t a realistic wish when there is just so much poverty... but I think we need to really challenge ourselves and ask “what is the best way I can help that gives some of the power that I have back” because really we shouldn't have had more than them to begin with, and I say that sitting here with a roof over my head and lunch in the oven feeling like a big hypocrite...
    Anyways my vision of what is needed is probably different from many others, and who knows what is best. Poverty is so complex, so sad... I wish someone knew the answer. But I am so happy you are bringing lots of attention to the issue on your blog, for us Ethiopian blended families it is most definitely something we all need to be thinking about.
    Hope your hubby is feeling better. We had a few similar experiences with GI illness when we were there and it is NOT nice. Thank goodness for cipro!

  4. I think you have hit the nail on the head on this one, Ruth, especially in terms of instant help and long-term help not being mutually exclusive.

    The parallel that keeps occurring to me may not be a popular one, but here goes: it's a lot like international adoption. We know there is a large problem - the orphan crisis - and adoption is not the solution to that problem. There still needs to be change, and support for families to stay together - to end hunger and preventable/treatable disease, to allow young single mothers to raise their children, to keep families intact.

    But yet we adopt. We don't give $20,000 to charity instead. And we say it's because the two things aren't mutually exclusive, and I can sponsor families and support NGOs and hope for progress. But that isn't going to solve the problem that this child, here today, doesn't have a family.

    So how can we say that it's not ok to offer assistance to someone whose situation, right now, is one in which they need help? The fear that we contribute to a mentality of foreigner-as-saviour is certainly a valid one, but I don't think it should necessarily stop us. (I do think though that giving anything to children is best avoided - better to give to the parent if possible, and let him/her be the one to provide for their child. Giving to kids is where the biggest pitfalls lie, really.)

    After all, we don't let the fact that by adopting we are contributing to a 'culture of adoption' stop us (maybe we should, but that's a topic for another day.) By adopting from Ethiopia and appearing out with our kids we are still supporting the image of foreigner-as-savior, and making more familiar the concept of adoption - perhaps bringing children into care who would have stayed with their family if international adoption was not known about. And what's a more dangerous result - that someone ends up thinking they can/should ask ferenge for money, or that someone relinquishes a child for the wrong reasons?

    And thus ends my novel-length comment. Complex issue, to be sure.