Monday, May 18, 2015

Bread and roses

Both advocates and critics of effective altruism like to contrast arts charities with public health charities. Peter Singer writes on art auctions:
In a more ethical world, to spend tens of millions of dollars on works of art would be status-lowering, not status-enhancing. Such behavior would lead people to ask: “In a world in which more than six million children die each year because they lack safe drinking water or mosquito nets, or because they have not been immunized against measles, couldn’t you find something better to do with your money?”
This sometimes strikes art-lovers as harsh. After all, they point out, life is about more than just surviving (although this always seems backwards to me, because surviving is obviously a prerequisite for any sort of higher enjoyment, and the unspoken implication is that some people should be left to struggle so others can enjoy the ballet).

But I think one of our problems is that when we think of "the arts," we think of expensive ones—symphony orchestras playing in concert halls, museums with paintings that cost millions of dollars.

Around the world and throughout history, art has been something more homegrown—people making music in their own families and communities, decorating their belongings and dwellings, composing stories and poetry. There have been many human societies without arts foundations, but none without dance, music, and storytelling.

I was totally charmed to hear some evidence of how promoting human survival also promotes human flourishing: the GiveDirectly theme song. GiveDirectly is a highly rated charity providing cash transfers to poor households in Kenya.

They write: "One of our recipients used part of his transfer to buy instruments and start a band, and wrote this song. We think they sound pretty happy with our service."

A partial translation of the song:

We thank GiveDirectly, the work you are doing in Kenya, Africa is great
GiveDirectly has helped those who were in thatched houses
And now almost everyone is having iron roof house
They have helped everyone who used to sleep in thatched houses,
Now all you see are shining iron roofs.

Another piece from a GiveDirectly worker on the role of celebration in the lives of the very poor:
I recently visited Peter, nicknamed Ous Papa, a 50-year-old man and beneficiary of GiveDirectly. Ous Papa had an accident a long time ago and lost one of his legs; as a result, his wife left him. He therefore takes care of his 80-year-old widowed mother alone. They are in absolute poverty -- he has a small grass-thatched house, with mud walls and floor. 
He has old crutches that he uses to help him walk and do chores. They are quite old, and therefore difficult to work with. In spite of that, he still wakes up early to work on the farm. When we met, I asked him what he was planning to do with the transfer he was going to receive from GiveDirectly. These were his words: “I would buy a leg.” 
I did not understand why he would buy a leg, when he could get a wheelchair that would help him move quickly and easily. He explained that he loves dancing and that he can’t dance in a wheelchair. Furthermore, once he got an artificial leg, he would be able to work, just like anybody else. He said that he would put the rest of the money into his farm, and later get a wife to keep him company and help him take care of his old mother. 
I found it really inspiring that a 50-year-old can be in absolute poverty and still dream of dancing.
To me, the message is that the basics are not just about the basics. Even the very poor want enjoyment and creativity in their lives—bread and roses, as James Oppenheim put it in his 1911 poem about striking millworkers.

And once people have the basics—a decent roof, a leg to dance on—just like anyone, they want to cut loose and celebrate.

Thanks to Catriona for pointing out the song and the connection to the arts debate!