Tuesday, November 27, 2012

False sense of poverty

I'm a social worker in a jail. Today one of the inmates showed an untrained but intricate drawing to my colleague.

"This is amazing," she said. "Do you ever go to galleries to look at art?"

"I never had no money for that kind of stuff," he told her.

Later she vented her frustration: "There are so many free galleries he could have been going to! There are passes from the public library. If only he had known! But poor people just don't find out about these things."

I love museums, and I almost never pay to go inside them. I love books, and I can have almost any book for free through the library request system. There are more free events in this city than I could possibly attend.

These are some of the things that make my life rich. Even on a small budget, you needn't have an impoverished life.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Ways to learn

Last time, I argued that those of us in rich countries can help more by earning money to give than by traveling to poor countries. But what about the understanding you can get from first-hand experience?

Travel is always a learning experience. It's a good way to see things about your own society that you never noticed until you saw a system that worked differently. It's a way to meet people whose lives have been very different from your own.

But most of my learning from living in other countries (Denmark and Ecuador) came from talking to people who had lived there all their lives. Conversations with my host families and teachers there were more illuminating than what I was able to observe walking around the streets. If you're in a place for a few weeks or months, you spend a lot of time getting your bearings. Unless you're going to spend years in a place, most of your learning will be mediated through people who have lived there a long time. And you don't need to leave your home country to meet people from around the world.

Several times when I've been between jobs, I've volunteered for a few weeks at a refugee services organization. I didn't accomplish anything earth-shattering, but I got to know people from places I had only read about: Nepal, Cuba, Ethiopia, Haiti, Somalia.

Instead of statistics, they became real people to me. I admired their bravery, their humor, their work ethic, and their loyalty to their families. When you listen to other people's life stories you get things through their filter, but when you hear enough stories you can piece together a complex picture.

Sometimes I hear “armchair philanthropists” criticized for not getting out there and seeing the situations they are trying to change. But you don't need to go to a refugee camp to hear someone's experience of what it's like there. If you want to meet people from hard-hit places, there are certainly immigrants living in your town.

For that matter, there are hard-hit people who are from your town. As a social worker I meet people who have been through appalling deprivation just miles from my house. But the elements I see missing in my client's lives are usually related to parenting rather than material resources.

Learning about people's experiences doesn't always mean I can help. Learning about what life is like in a Quito orphanage, Kenyan refugee camp, or South Boston doesn't enable me to fix any of it. Civil war and broken families are not problems that I can make much of a dent in. So I focus my donations on lower-hanging fruit.

But I still think there's value in learning from other people's experiences. Sitting down to talk with people from the other side of the tracks or the other side of the world can help us be more aware, more compassionate people.

In your town, there are refugees and immigrants who want to learn more English. There are kids at homeless shelters who want someone to read to them. There are people who want help writing a resume so they can apply for jobs. If you want to see a different side of life, try working with them for a while. No plane tickets needed.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Getting your hands dirty

I was talking to a friend about ways to help the world, and he said something that surprised me: “I sometimes feel guilty about doing little more than donating money to charities without actually getting my hands dirty.”

Actually, I don't think he should feel guilty at all.

If I moved to a poor country to do good deeds, pretty much anything I would do there would be better done by a local person. I would need to learn the local language(s), learn how to function in a new culture, and learn skills that would be useful there.

If you're a nurse, and you think Africa needs more nurses, the answer is not to go to Africa and work as a nurse. Nurses in Kenya earn around $3,000 a year. If you're an American nurse earning $65,000 a year, you could fund thirteen Kenyan nurses and still keep above the US median income. Plus those nurses would be familiar with local culture and language rather than being known as “that nice foreigner who speaks such terrible Swahili.”

The idea that you should help in person is perpetuated by programs like the Peace Corps. (I came within an inch of going to Kazakhstan for two years with them, and in retrospect I think I did a lot more good by staying home and earning money to give.) I do think Peace Corps and similar programs have a positive impact, but it's mostly in the form of cultural exchange and understanding rather than actual development work.

Now, things are different if you have very specific skills. If you're an expert in, say, microfinance or running small rural health clinics, you might be very valuable working in the field. But the rest of us can probably help more by staying home and doing what we do best.  Most jobs will provide us with enough money to live comfortably and still fund good work elsewhere.

Of course, there's value to cultural exchange and hands-on experience, too. Are we doomed to be armchair philanthropists who are clueless about the real needs of people we're trying to help? Hardly. More on that next time.