samaritan’s dilemma: privilege & root causes

The world is full of incredible opportunities to do good. Many of us are raised with a background that informs us to serve others, particularly the “less fortunate.” Yet we face an ever increasing dilemma that requires us to check out prejudices at the door and delve deeper, beyond the surface of social issues.

We face these issues when encountering individuals in our own communities and when we choose to donate to well meaning organizations internationally (or work for them).

If you give a beggar money. . .

The homeless population and beggars around the world cause many to feel incredibly uncomfortable. We have mixed  emotions for a population that we feel equally empathetic and uncertain towards. Many religious texts tell us to serve the poor, clothe the naked, feed the hungry, etc., but we’ve all heard the horror stories of people who have faked being homeless or have been warned of giving money for fear that it might be used for drugs or alcohol.

“The ‘homeless’ guy I gave $5 to yesterday just paid to get on the bus- holding Starbucks and skates. Holiday generosity stock depleted.”

This seems to be credible dilemma, but it only skims the surface of the issue. How are we to know a stranger’s story? Is their predicament related to race and privilege, maybe societal power structures have adversely affected opportunities in their poor communities?

While at a social justice conference in Detroit with colleagues from around the country we were approached by a woman asking for money. It was a moment of questioning for all of us. Do we act as good social change agents and give some money or do we take a step back? In the end we all denied that we had any cash to give. Our discussion after that encounter came to the conclusion: “its always hard to know the best thing to do.”

What happens to your good intentions if you see them tomorrow?

Is it just a function of our privilege that we expect our small donation to a “less fortunate” person to change their life? Do we expect that since we took the time to be nice, that they will then no longer need to ask for more?

I’ll begin this section with a story.

A woman is approached by a middle-aged African-American couple in her quiet white suburb. They say their car broke down and they just need some money for bus fare to get home. She offers to give them the bus fare and give them a ride to the bus stop, but they say they’d just like the bus fare. A couple of days later, she sees the couple again at a department store telling the same story. The store employees scowl and say the couple is often there asking for money. This angers the woman and she feels cheated. Why does the couple have to cheat people who just want to be nice?

The real question should be: “What are the social implications that cause them to need to beg for money every day to get by?” Its all too easy to chalk up our failed giving expectations to a few bad apples, but there is often more to think about than the oversimplification of just one bad person.

Where did the person come from? What was their community like? Are these common issues that correspond with discrimination based on income level or race?

All of these questions are critical to being able to understand the root causes to the issues that people face. Very often there are dynamics of privilege and power at play. Historically, African-Americans have come from areas where they have been marginalized due to their race, which predisposes them to reduced opportunities in education and career, which can lead to lower incomes and continued discrimination.

Personally, I often struggle with the dynamics of being approached on the street and so I often neglect to give anything. Occasionally, I give a small amount to individuals who seem to be genuine, but that’s all too easy for me to pass judgment with my privilege. I guess I would prefer to donate to local organizations that work with the homeless instead of doing my own cash grants on the street.

Good intentions + organizations = addressing root causes?

The quick answer is “NO!”

We can’t begin to imagine that our choices to “do good” will completely change systems or flip our societal order in favor of the poor or racially discriminated. There is much more work to be done than handouts and volunteering if we are going to change entire systems and see change in our lifetimes. Social change takes many people working together over generations to make real and lasting impacts.

It is unfortunate that even humanitarian organizations can either be fake or completely off base. Here the samaritan’s dilemma becomes two-fold. What organizations should you donate your money to? and how do you know where (or to whom) that money is going?

Often service and development organizations fail to take the time to map out the root causes of the issues they work on and get trapped in actions that don’t address the root cause. To say that a beggar is homeless and on the street because they are addicted, lazy, or incompetent is an oversimplification. To say that a multi-country conflict is fueled by a single man shows a serious lack of historical understanding. We have to take the time to learn more and think critically about the social issues that we would like to amend and the people who we would like to help.

We cannot keep picking at the fruits of the social issues we see, we must start chopping at the trunks (institutions & policies) that perpetuate the root causes.

education is more than a building

No more cups of any kind, number 3s, or beverage references. Let’s talk about root causes.

“Give a man a fish; you have fed him for today. Teach a man to fish; and you have fed him for a lifetime”

To build on this wonderful old adage (which was all too easy to add before writing anything original): If you give a community a school; they have a nice building until it decays. If you invest in an education system; they will have education for generations.

In a recent response to the Greg Mortenson controversy Rebecca Winthrop, Director of the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institute, gave a thoughtful response and criticism of Mortenson’s engagement methods on providing education.

As I had written yesterday, my biggest take away from the book was the idea that it is necessary to build relationships and community connections before entering into any international project. However, Mortenson may not have followed his own advice. Like many development critics, I don’t see the benefit of building a school structure without engaging teachers and education systems. There are many accounts of corporations and notably oil companies that have built schools for communities where they exploited resources – but those structures remain empty. A school is no good if there are no teachers or if the local education system is not consulted or included in the process.

This has been noted to be an all too common problem in development projects and one that I saw firsthand during my experience in Nicaragua. The US based non-profit that I worked for utilizes the same method as Mortenson’s CAI: increasing education by building schools. During my trip to Nicaragua the organization was actually building a concrete school structure next to an existing wood school. Granted this old structure wasn’t the most amazing, but the root cause of the lack of education opportunities in this community was not due to a lack of a school building, rather it was a lack of dedicated teachers and adequate training among other issues.

The Nicaraguan education system didn’t have much influence in rural communities. There was no accountability to the community school or to any educational body for that matter. Some teachers choose to come whenever they pleased and others had never been given any formal or informal teacher training  even though they displayed incredible dedication.

We need to address structures that perpetuate the problems that we see if our work is going to have a real impact for those we seek to help. By asking communities what solutions  work best, we can change the way “development” has been done in the past and focus on our own accountability.

Recommended articles:

Three Cups of Deceit” by Jon Krakauer (on Byliner)

Three Cups of BS” by Alanna Shaikh (on Foreign Policy)

Photo credit: James Warden / S&S (from Empty Schools, Dashed Hopes Stars & Stripes)

measuring poverty beyond a dollar a day

(Photo credit: Allianz Knowledge Partnersite)

How do you measure the worth or suffering of someone’s life? We’ve all seen the ads where a white man walks through desolate streets as malnourished children cling to his hands. He tells us that we can help and that these children can be helped for just a dollar a day. So why do these commercials play year after year if all that is needed is a dollar a day?

The truth is that a dollar a day tells you very little about those children, the reason for their lack of nourishment, or the history or their countries, communities, and families. For years international agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have been using the Human Development Index (HDI) created by the United Nations Development Program. The HDI is a set of statistics used to rank a country based on “human development” (i.e. mortality rates, life expectancy, etc.) The original idea was to “to shift the focus of development economics from national income accounting to people centered policies.”

The HDI and its statistics built such programs as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and many had criticisms. Some argued that the HDI was still too nation focused or that measuring material wealth could never promote “human development” thus ending poverty. Just yesterday the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI) of Oxford University and the Human Development Report Office of the UNDP announced a new way to measure poverty called the Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI). Director of the UNDP Human Development Report Office, Dr. Jeni Klugman, said. “The MPI provides a fuller measure of poverty than the traditional dollar-a-day formulas.” She noted that the MPI assesses critical factors at the family level and it will be used to compliment the HDI by examining broader aspects of well-being.

As our understandings of the root causes of poverty increase so must our means of measuring its affects. While some are focused on pulling our heart strings with “dollar a day” lines, the larger development institutions are working to become more innovative in their approaches to measure poverty.

While the MPI is a positive step in the right direction, it seems that it will still be very broadly focused and may still lose the “people centered” perspective. As large development institutions focus and innovate measures for poverty, why have they not just asked those most affected?