Tuesday, August 01, 2006

charity and perceived alternatives

Hi Everybody,

Well, I've got two questions for anyone who's reading this. It's
multiple choice, and you can respond either to my email address or in
the comment section here. I'd also love to hear thoughts and reasons
why you answered as you did, if you feel like it.

Here are the questions.

1) If you were hungry and had no way of getting food besides the
following choices, would you rather (A) mug somebody with a knife in
an alley to get money; or (B) ask people on the street to give you

2) If you were poor and had no way of getting money besides the
following choices, would you rather (A) break into a big house where
you were sure nobody was home and there was no burglar alarm and steal
things to sell; or (B) apply for welfare?

Have you decided what you're going to answer yet? Okay, now I'll
explain why I'm asking.

I think that here in Nicaragua there are two ideas about charity which
are in conflict. One is very familiar to those of us who live in the
US: accepting charity is a fairly shameful thing. Accepting charity
implies a confession that you have failed in some way—that you are not
able to get or keep a job, one of the ways that United Stateseans tend
to measure personal worth and dignity. (This is why some feminists
have been so anxious to dignify "homemaking" as a legitimate,
challenging job, for example.) Accepting charity also puts you in a
certain moral danger of becoming dependent on that charity, of
stopping to try to work, of becoming lazy. Here in Nicaragua, there
is a popular saying, most frequently repeated by NGO employees, which
means something like, "When somebody gives us something, we take it
and have a party with it" (in contrast to what we earn ourselves,
which we put to constructive use.) It rhymes in Spanish and is much
more catchy. It is this idea about charity which brought us the idea
of the "deserving poor"—some people are poor because they can't help
it (they had an accident and weren't insured, they have a disability,
they were victims of a natural disaster), and therefore they deserve
help in getting out of it. Other people, the undeserving poor, are
poor because it's their own darn fault (they're lazy, they're sexually
promiscuous and so had too many kids, they're wasteful, they're
addicted), and they don't deserve our help.

This is in contrast to a second idea about charity which people
sometimes talk about, which feels very unfamiliar to me. According to
this idea, charity is not as stigmatized, and need does not imply
blame. If somebody is poor, they should be given charity. I have
been startled a couple of times by the respect with which people treat
beggars. In the house in el campo where I've stayed a number of
times, a homeless woman with two small children sometimes stops in to
beg. She is given a seat in the house, her children are allowed to
run around, and she is brought a glass of water, a cup of coffee and
some bread, or sometimes a plate of beans and a tortilla. She may
stay an hour or two. She is possibly mentally ill, and people have a
couple of times indicated this to me with gestures, behind her back,
but nobody ever tries to kick her out. I have seen this happen in the
city, too. Once when I was going to look at a room I was thinking
about renting, I was inside the house chatting with the owner, an
elderly widow. Another woman, a stranger to the owner, knocked at the
door asking for coffee. The owner gave her a seat, a cup of coffee
and some bread, and a couple of coins. I had finished talking about
the room, but all three of us sat together talking in the living room
until a heavy rainstorm passed. One final example, which was very
surprising to me at the time: during an interview, a man was telling
me about some men he knew. They're drunks, all they like to do is
drink. And they support themselves by asking for money on the street.
But they would never steal from anyone, they're very honorable men.

There is another popular refrain which means "it's better to ask for
charity so that you don't have to steal," which I associate with this
second idea. The thing that's interesting to me about the refrain is
that there are only two alternatives posed—asking for charity or
stealing. This implies to me a view of the world, probably pretty
realistic around here, that when you're down on your luck, it's not
easy to just go out and find work. There is an astronomical level of
unemployment, and most unskilled labor (agricultural labor, I'm
thinking) earns 20 cordobas a day, or about one dollar and 18 cents at
current exchange rates. And this is only available to most people
during the coffee picking season, mid-November through February.
We're now in the "time of silence", when there is almost no work to be
had if you don't have land and you don't have a permanent job. So…
people don't blame other people for being poor, and there is less
stigma attached to asking for or receiving charity.

One thing I've been asking recently in my research is… what do the
existence of these two different sets of ideas mean for interactions
between charities and rural beneficiaries? Does it cause bad feelings
and misunderstandings on both sides? Does it increase the sense that
work by non-profits, which is seen as charity or aid by its United
States funders and probably by most of its workers as well, is seen by
the beneficiaries as a business which has ulterior motives besides
just helping them?

Maybe in another blog entry I'll write a moderately blistering
indictment of all the ulterior motives which non-profits working in
this area do apparently have. But this one is getting a little bit
long, so I'll sign off now.

Looking forward to hearing what you have to say!

1 comment:

Noah H. Enelow said...

A complicated issue, for sure... not all NGOs are "charity" based, some are based around technical training, some education, some health, et cetera. ALL of these categories are problematic for similar and different reasons.

None of which implies that all NGOs should just stop working, of course...

Not that I don't have a lot to say on this, but I'm also in the midst of my own project. Let's talk about it later.