Saturday, April 16, 2011


This morning was what is known as Food for the Poor delivery morning ‘round these parts. Food for the Poor are a charity who, amongst other things, distribute food to those in need. The nuns I’m living with act as a distribution centre on behalf of FFTP, and receive, every two months, two truckloads of rice, beans, and other items for allocation to families in Gros Morne. The ‘other items’ included in the shipment vary wildly. They are generally a hosh-posh of surplus stock from the US. In February, there were 1,550 pairs of Nike Air Jordan basketball shoes in the trucks. There are still a good portion of these left here in the house, albeit mostly size 13. You’d be hard pushed to find many Haitians with size 13 feet. Included in the shipment this morning were several cases of an acne medication. Whilst there are significantly more Haitians suffering from acne than Haitians with size 13 feet, the medication seems a relatively trivial item. I’m sure there’s a reason it has been sent here, but I would be inclined to believe it has more to do with a tax deduction than dermatological concern. However despite the perceived irrelevance of these surplus items, I have no second-guesses that the food distributed satisfies a genuine need.

Distribution can be tricky at best. The idea is to get the food to the portion of people who need it most. Despite the relative poverty of most people in Haiti, many families live comfortably, steady employment meaning they can afford beyond the basics of food, clothing and accommodation, and have the means to purchase mobile phones, a television or sometimes even a vehicle. The nuns have a database of families that they assist continuously, to whom food is distributed periodically, as well as clothing or other goods as they are received from FFTP. However, often people from outside this register come in search of assistance, and this occurs more frequently when items of higher value are distributed. As a case in point, once the word got out that there were Nike Air Jordans being handed out, there were lines of people knocking at the door. This presented a difficult task. It had to be ensured that those most in need received first. Despite the large quantity, there needed to be a structure to the distribution, to ensure that those most in need were catered for. This was made even more difficult by relative strangers calling to the house throughout the day, requesting shoes. Many of these people were turned away. This brings us to the point of one of the more difficult issues of working in a developing country. You will, on a continuous basis, be asked for things.

The reasons for this, as quickly becomes apparent, are not always as simple as a person with nothing begging for help from anyone who can help them. From my experience, very few Haitians are what you would term in Dublin ‘professional beggars’, for the simple reason that there is less money present. You will rarely see a Haitian stop another Haitian on the street to ask them for anything. Even still, there are people, even in Gros Morne, a small rural town, who have money. Only today, I saw a brand new Mazda pickup parked at the side of the street. People do walk around well dressed. And I don’t just mean shirt and slacks well, I mean fashionably well. And yet, I have still to see one of these people stopped to be asked for a dollar. This leads me to the conclusion, despite trying to avoid it, that people only ask me for things because I am white. Which is grating.

There are a certain amount of assumptions that are made of white people here. Some are true, some not, some vary person to person. A running theme is that there is an endless supply of goods attainable to all white people. When asked for my watch last week, I asked why? The phrasing of the word for ‘why’ in Kreyol is the same as ‘for what?’, so I was met with the response, ‘in order to tell the time’. When I elaborated my question to ask as to why I should give the young man my watch, leaving me without one, he answered in English ‘You can buy the next one’. He repeated his answer in Kreyol, and although he meant to say ‘You can buy another one’, his initial mistranslation may have been more appropriate.

This was not an isolated incident, and a couple of times a week, I will be asked for my watch, my sunglasses, my cap - items which do not hold a large amount of monetary value, and are all easily replaceable. So why not give my watch to every person who asks for it, and just replace it? (In case you’re wondering it’s a relic, it cost less than ten euro, and would be even cheaper to replace here).

When it comes to a question like this, I find there is a spectrum along which an answer can be found. At one end, you can find the opinion that yes, why not? If someone is in need, and you can afford to replace your own, give. At the other end is the view that if you give once, there can be no limit, until before you know it, you’ve spent all your money on watches - assistance should be controlled in a regulated manner. Both sides' arguments rubbish the opposite, picking at the fundamental flaws they both inherently have. The latter view is taken and preached by many NGOs with staff working in developing countries: aid, in all forms, must go through certain procedures, which may seem bureaucratic, but are necessary to ensure fairness. On the other hand, if you are in a position to change somebody’s position immediately, why wait for them to be assessed by a means test if you yourself can see that they are in need?

There is no right answer to this, but if giving, the effects must be considered. You may never see this person again, but what happens the next time they see another white person? If they have had success before, they will likely ask again. If they tell their friends or family ‘a white person gave me their watch’, these people are likely to adopt a similar attitude. Personally, I am less inclined to give when asked on the spot. An advantage I have in being here long term is being able to repeatedly meet people, to better understand their position and their need. If giving, a strategy I have found helpful is, having been asked for something by somebody, to invent some sort of task, as menial as it may be, a job that will warrant a payment. This means that less of a ‘hand-out’ culture is encouraged, and a value of work is promoted. Another advantage of being here long-term is to alternatively offer something of non-monetary value, such as English classes.

It is sustainable gifts such as education or a means toward a livelihood that are also promoted by NGOs and charities. (Insert ‘man/fishing net/feeding his family’ parable here).  However, sometimes it is difficult to say no. An attitude I think that is applicable to almost all instances, not just in developing countries, but at home too, is to engage with a person, so far as is possible. So often it is easier to just give somebody some money so they will leave you alone, but this is irresponsible. As we have all seen, throwing money at something (say... a failing financial institution for example) doesn’t always work. A conversation will enlighten you to the person’s specific situation, and may present opportunities to help them in a number of ways, be it advising them where they might find work, or shelter, or cheaper food, or otherwise. Although barriers of race, culture, language, or socioeconomic status may divide, an effort to engage in conversation will yield, in most cases, greater benefits than currency. In giving a person your time, rather than your watch, the person will in most cases be better off.