Archive for April, 2012

This post comes after a long and very hectic month of work down here in Nicaragua. While sounding harsh in the title, this is a concept that a lot of people tend to miss (myself included) until you actually live in an impoverished place for a long time.
The basic idea is very simple, and boils down to thinking critically about the repercussions of one’s actions in different societies. Something benevolent and seemingly innocent can have unintended and more sinister consequences.

There are a lot of homeless people in Nicaragua (but surprisingly less pan handlers than Boulder, CO….) however about half of the ones you see are children. In the US, this almost never happens. Child Services works to remove children from these situations and place them in protective care. In Nicaragua (and other 3rd world countries) poor children actually work as a commodity. The average daily wage is so low here that literally one person giving you a couple of bucks can actually surpass what you would make in a day. It’s also obvious that people have an easier time giving to a poor, dirty kid than a crazy old man.
The problem stems from just how lucrative this inequality can be and it finds its perfect paradise in the historic city of Granada. Granada is where a large number of affluent Nicas and gringo tourists can spend an average daily wage or more on one hamburger. The aggressive begging and panhandling in Granada is absolutely out of control, and while the city itself has very well equipped organizations to feed, clothe and house street children, the source of the problem remains on the shoulders of tourists.

The children in Granada can make 5, 10 or even 20X the daily wage begging, and are intentionally kept out of school to do so. The parents understand this business, and will send them out with quotas to fill, or places to perform or beg. Some parents are even so shameless as to walk around town and simply point at tourists as they beckon their (intentionally) unwashed children to go beg for money. Obviously the children never actually see any of the money, and it’s an obtuse form of child labor wherein the adults deprive the children of any future for an easy business. The bottom line is that they do it because it works. Period. Some vendors even rent the services of children to sell cheap trinkets all day long, and visible physical abuses of the children are seen in broad daylight.

The hardest thing to do is to say no to a sympathetic little face. But you have to understand it is the ONLY thing you can do to help. There are good organizations that you can donate to that have infrastructure to help, but other than that you are doing the children a disservice by perpetuating the lifestyle they are forced into.

This same concept can be broadened to a lot of NGO assistance organizations. Many times in the impoverished areas, there are multiple successions of NGO’s coming in to do short term assistance through infrastructure building etc. A lot of these programs are fantastic, and actually make a difference. However unfortunately a large number of them are short sighted an unsustainable. While giving the illusion of assistance, they create a very short term (<1 year) solution to a systemic problem while cultivating a perception of entitlement to free assistance. After years of different NGO’s coming in through volunteer programs to gift communities with various types of assistance, rarely does the assistance bestow the ability of actual independence to the local people.

Essentially it is like the old adage: “Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime.”
After receiving buckets and buckets of fish, someone comes along offering to teach the community how to fish and nobody wants to learn because it can be hard work.

I guess the whole point of this post is to advise people to think very hard about what types of organizations to donate to, and how to conduct yourself in impoverished countries. It especially applies to people who are actually volunteering in impoverished nations. You really need to think critically about the entire situation and put yourself into the mind of a local. How will this assistance look in 5 years? Will they have forgotten everything? How are they conceptualizing this assistance? Are we disincentivizing normal channels of upward mobility by being here?

So if you are a big time fish giver….put that bucket away and start teaching.