A Moral Quandary – Audience Participation (?)

Before I arrived in Uganda, I expected that people in Africa would ask me for money or sponsorship all the time. I had heard my father’s stories from the Peace Corps in Peru, where people would simultaneously tell him “America kills babies!” and ask him to bring them back to the U.S. While I expected a similar experience, I didn’t get it. Aside from the occasional person who would walk up to me on the street and say “Mzungu! Give me money” (in a totally non-threatening manner), I was panhandled or asked for assistance practically never.

Why they thought all white people are rich was beyond me.
Why they thought all white people are rich is beyond me.

All this taken into consideration, I still wasn’t particularly surprised or taken aback this week when an acquaintance from Uganda – with whom I shared a house for a few weeks – wrote from out of the blue asking me for a few hundred dollars to help him pay university fees. I was, however, a bit thrown for a loop. You would think that, studying development, I would have some logical plan of action for confronting a real-world situation of third world poverty. The irony is that, while I might have had a ready answer a year ago, my experiences since then have made this sort of thing seem much more complex.

I like to think of myself as someone who is aware of his privilege and the obligations to others that privilege creates. The utilitarian in me knows that in the grand scheme of the universe, I am unlikely to gain more benefit from a few hundred bucks than this guy will, and the determinist in me knows that I have money and he does not by pure chance. It doesn’t particularly bother me that he is asking me, who he knew for only a few weeks, rather than any of the numerous other similarly positioned white graduate students who also live in the house (he didn’t ask either of the other research assistants, who were there at the same time I was). To some extent, it’s frustrating that he—like so many in Uganda—assumed that because I am from the U.S., my funds are limitless, but from his perspective, they might as well be. I do have the resources to help, if I really want to, and the things I would sacrifice to do so would be significant but not overwhelmingly so.

Peter Singer talks about the example of a drowning child; just because others could pull out the child, and do not, does not lessen your own obligation to help. Neither should it matter if the child is far away, nor if helping him or her requires you to be late for work or ruin a nice suit. It’s an argument that I find persuasive, and I remind myself of it anytime I am reluctant to open up my purse strings. I suppose that, a year ago, my bleeding heart and liberal guilt-complex would have led me to stretch my funds and wire him some money.

What I have realized in the last year, though, is that our moral obligation to give is not necessarily the same as someone else’s moral entitlement to get. In Uganda, I tried arduously to shut my eyes to the signs of dependence around me, but they were there. It was impossible to ignore the way people turned to white intervention as a panacea for their problems. In a sense, people in Africa may very well deserve assistance from Europeans; we have and continue to extract billions of dollars in natural resource wealth from the continent. At the same time, though, a knee-jerk assumption that white people will come on high and solve problems does create a sort of complacency and powerlessness that ensures that no assistance will actually work.

When I’ve mentioned my quandary to some of my friends, many of them commented, “You also have no idea if he’s actually going to spend the money to go to college.” I suppose I’m naïve enough that this concern never occurred to me, and it still doesn’t particularly bug me. I do, however, wonder about whether giving him money for an education will actually help him avoid having to come back to me again. A sad truth of Uganda is that there are far more degrees than jobs; this summer, I paid people with MBAs and masters degrees $10 a day to read surveys all day. This is not a matter of “teaching someone to fish,” as per the parable; it’s giving a fish.

I’m a little uncomfortable with the idea of writing about this publicly; perhaps a private request for aid should be kept private (though I am keeping this anonymous). But I am genuinely curious if anyone has any insights as to how to deal with this sort of a situation.

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