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Jul 11, 2015

One of the first things that one notices when coming to India is the extreme poverty. This is a deal killer for many people and that is why they say that India is too extreme for them. However, for me it was not as bad as many people made it out to be and as I had already seen worse. I will share my thoughts on poverty, begging, and what it means to be poor in the world.

Actually, really the only place that I had seen which was in worse shape than India had been Ethiopia. I had visited in 2010 and spent about 5 weeks exploring the amazing country with tons of history. It was here that you would be mobbed by a group of children following you through the city saying quite impolitely to “give me money!” Although I had sympathy for the children in their dirty and tattered clothes, I quickly realized that even if I gave money I would not have enough for all of them. I also realized that giving one money would start a shitstorm of yelling and demands for more from the others. This eventually led to more problems for me than it solved so I ended up not giving any money to anyone.

The children might have been a sad thing to see, but what really got me was the old and the disabled. Since the social net in poorer countries relies on family and friends helping you instead of the government, many can slip through the cracks and eventually end up dead. First coming to Ethiopia and then later to India, it was heartbreaking to see old people who should be respected as bearers of wisdom within the community, cast out on the streets asking for pennies. Even worse were the deformed and disabled. Somehow, the poor communities had somehow made bodily deformations more severe. One man who was missing a bone in his arm turning half of their arm into a boneless jelly mass was among the most impactful. There was one man who had arms which could only be described as wings, the anatomy looking exactly like something you might get in a KFC bucket. Finally there were many with the same deformity shortening their legs to about 10 inches (25cm) long making them look like they were walking dogs.

But would giving these people a few cents help their problems? Would giving the man with the ongoing watermelon-sized infection on his leg lead him to buying antiseptic? Did he know what antiseptic was and how quickly his problem it could be solved? Or had he discovered a new source of income that could outcompete anything else he might earn in a day? Would he continue to keep this wound open to maintain his income? Sometimes it felt like my seconds-long interactions with some people was not nearly enough to answer the questions that needed to be asked to know if I could really help. My medical knowledge was also quite lacking in order to give anything close to useful help.

Am I cold? Am I heartless? Or would the amount of help and interaction needed be thousands of times higher than what I wanted to or could give? I became agnostic in this viewpoint and just tried to remember there were professionals devoted to this very task. Just like an inexperienced surgeon, I could cause more damage than benefit with my dull dagger of “help.” I knew that institutions would be better at solving this, but more than that later.

So when I came to India, the situation was something I had already seen. I had already had time to think about my actions five years before and I knew what to expect. Overall, the poverty seemed to be less. There seemed to be fewer people in abject poverty who looked like they were dying before your very eyes. The people laying on the streets covered in blankets now looked like they were just resting during the hot day instead of dead corpses lying everywhere. Was it the same situation and had my perspective changed so much in the last few years? Or was the actual poverty of the people not as bad as the ones in Africa those years before?

When you visit Yellowstone National Park, or any other wildlife park, they tell you not to feed the animals. The bears become dependent on the picnic baskets they steal and eventually end up starving during the winter. This is something that I noticed in some of the poorer countries as well. The more lucrative begging became, the more people saw it as a viable way to live leaving them up to the whims of those giving. It was really only in the cities where it was possible to lead a life of begging. In the rural towns it was much harder to see this way of life and therefore it seemed more peaceful for me as a traveller. Perhaps cities are an aberration and they cause some sort of weird behavior that you just don't see in villages. That is actually somewhat of a conclusion I have reached, but more on that in another episode.

And then you see other people who are also disfigured that seem to be leading normal lives. Dressed in business attire, they walk along with their crutch supporting their deformed leg. I was excited to see this, partially in a selfish way because it meant she wouldn't bother me for money! It also showed me that there was hope and there was a future for somebody like this. I appreciate this random lady in the bus for giving me hope.

I don't know how to handle poverty in developing countries but I have come to the realization that I am not very interested in donations to poor individuals. The stories of the European beggar on the street then going home to their middle-class home have made me sour to this whole concept. Personal stories from friends who performed on the street earning more than $20 an hour have also made me start to believe that those begging may be better off than we expect. What I can expect from this is that a dirty beggar on the street can earn twice as much as a laborer sweating to earn their bread. I don't think this is fair and it is not something I really want to support.

I see the act of giving somebody money as a value exchange. Buying something like a sandwich is also an exchange of value. I give you this valuable money and you give me this valuable sandwich. Begging is the same way. You make me feel bad about your condition and I either pay you money to make you go away or to make me feel better as a person. There is always some sort of value exchange at play here. However, in the case of feeling better as a person, part of this depends on the idea that you did a good thing and actually helped the person. In the case of the man with the leg infection, it would mean that this money went to treating his wound and nothing else. Since this is not assured, any donation to him could lead to a false sense of feeling better as a person. Since I don't like being conned I opt to not give to anyone.

The only time I give to people on the street is when the value they give me is something which I know is not fake. For example if there is an entertainer on the street either doing a show or playing music I usually give money. I see this both as an effort on their part to be creative as well as a better value exchange for me. This is something that I will remember fondly for some time and therefore it is worth my money. One could also think of it as changing the atmosphere of the location to something more pleasant rather than unpleasant. This is also a reason to be rewarded with my dollar.

I think that poverty as we see on the streets of poor countries (or as some only see on charity commercials) is an artificial construction. Although people in the past might have been poor, generally they had enough food to sustain themselves and be happy. True, the people in villages can often look poor due to their lack of material wealth, but this is not a good measure of poverty. If counting how many shirts you own is a measure then anyone living more than a hundred years ago should have been absolutely miserable. However, going through a village it does not seem that the people are very unhappy, but rather that it is a fact of life to live the way they do. They seem to be well fed and have decent food security. This is something we have all to understand, is that poverty is not an absolute measurement but rather a relative measurement of your wealth with someone elses.

I think the same way we have gotten used to our way of life and our standards, we need to respect that it can be different in other places. A farming village may not necessarily be backwards and out of touch with technology, it could be perhaps embracing the centuries of culture and tradition preceding it. This is necessary in any society, people who move forward, and people who stay back. If everybody were to go forward and it was unsuccessful or dangerous, then at least there are those that stayed back and stuck to traditions. I think it is important in this way not to force anything. People are reasonable and have a basis for their actions. That is why potentially forcing expensive, inefficient programs onto places that don't want it can only be described as meddling.

We can do more harm than good with donations. I read a book in Ethiopia which really opened the covers on many of the actions of aid spending and what it does to communities. To really imagine it think of a scenario where a group of Chinese businessmen come to your community. They decide that not nearly enough Mah-Jong is being played to develop strategic intelligence and that this will help the local population. They then build schools in the area to teach this exact thing, pat themselves on the back for doing a good thing, and leave. What is left is a confused public wondering where to get the coaches for this and whether it is even valuable. The buildings are abandoned and used for something else which has an immediate need.

This is quite common in the area of aid spending. People with dubious degrees come into a region, stay for a few months, and determine they know exactly how to boost the local society. Often the people come with only their own background and don't know how to deal with the local conditions. Meanwhile, the local population knows exactly what they need and often can be much more lean financially when building up the project. The same can be said of any tourist or visitor coming into a new place. How are you sure that the thing you are doing will lead to an improvement or will it lead to marginal benefit which is wildly to low in its benefit per dollar relation?

This is why I see any act of donation to prevent starvation or simple sicknesses as essential, and the rest is just optional. Next I see education as important, but due to technology it can be scaled much more cheaply than even a few decades ago. Open source platforms like Wikipedia make an hour of learning almost free and available to billions. Education no longer requires expensive school and teachers, rather mentors and internet coffee shops guiding the learning process. Everything else, in my opinion, is just a nice thing to have.

I think my travels have changed what I believe about poverty. I have gone from an idealistic kid most definitely influenced by charity commercials with their sad music and wanting to help everyone, to a more pragmatic version where I see that my help is often misguided and leads to an assumption that I am better than they are. I now see that people everywhere are very smart and can usually make the best decisions for themselves, by themselves. Donations to the right professionals making a difference can have an effect but giving to those on the street might not help much at all.


Special thanks to Gary Berrios for writing in, good luck with your languages.