Mendigos and Some Development Naivety

If I actually had the wherewithal to draw up a budget for this trip, I think I would have to include a byline for what I give to mendigos (Spanish for “beggars”). As sure as it is that I will go to Café Amazonica every day in Coca—they get the whole vegetarian thing, and have a multi-course breakfast for $2—it is equally predictable that I will be greeted by the debilitated man on the stoop outside my hotel and supplicated by the destitute mother of two on the block adjacent.  And, being a bleeding heart, it is also assured that I will hand over some change; only the quantity is in doubt.

I’ll be the first to admit it, I’m a bleeding heart.  When I lived and worked in New York, giving to panhandlers was a constant financial outflow.  In Oxford, “begging” is institutionalized by The Big Issue, a social-entrepreneurship venture that provides magazines for homeless people to sell.  It’s actually a decent production: the problem is that there is a vendor on every corner, and I am really only interested in buying one issue a week.  Still, though, when I here them call out to me, “Big Issue, please, help the homeless,” I have trouble justifying why I should sleep in a bed and they on the street.  And so goes another 15 pounds a week.

In our research methods class this year, we were required to do a short qualitative project.  A group of us decided to talk with Big Issue vendors about their interactions with different populations in the Oxford Community.  As tends to be the case with ungraded assignments, we didn’t work too hard and as a result didn’t uncover anything too surprising.  Indeed, our number one discovery was blatantly obvious: the vendors hate being ignored.  As one of them put it, “I’d rather people say ‘fuck you’ than just walk by.”  And so, I came to a personal compromise, to reconcile my pocketbook and financial reality.  I would keep my spare change in my pocket, but I would always acknowledge with a smile, a nod, and a no-thanks.

The problem is, this strategy doesn’t work.  Not at all.  The vast majority of people, of course, just walk by panhandlers, and do their best to pretend that they do not exist.  As soon as we do admit that they are there, it’s hard not to sense some sort of moral obligation to do something.  As soon as I make eye-contact, it seems, I have passed into this latter group; there is, all of a sudden, an expectation; guilt kicks in and I reach into my pocket.  There is, it seems, no middle ground.  As much as I’m sure the mother on Calle 12 de Octubre appreciates the recognition, here kids don’t seem to be able to eat kindness.

Which brings me (naturally without any awkward and disconnected logical leap) to development.  This hopeless middle ground—acknowledge, but do not act—seems to be the path that Oxford is pushing me to take.  In my fieldwork, I am supposed to meticulously follow and document the injustices of the world around me; at the same time, though, I am trained to think that these problems are intractable.  Any effort to solve them, after all, would oversimplify complex local variation, ignore important historical contexts, and involve the subtle exercise of discursive power to construct third world subjects. I am, in short, instructed to become an expert at observing injustice, but will remain impotent with respect to doing anything about it.

There are, I admit, really good reasons for not trying to help people in developing countries.  For one, developing countries are not beggars (any metaphorical suggestions from this post aside).  Not everyone wants to be “helped,” and not every good intention to help people translates into positive results.  This seems to be dawning on the development community more and more: our new fad is randomized experimention, which has the novel consequence of allowing us to know whether development programs actually do what they are supposed to.  That more of aid budgets are going to evaluation and research is, I think, probably a good thing.  What scares me, though, is that, perhaps, when we finally do find something that works in development, we will be too cynical to acknowledge it—it must be a flaw in our evaluation design!  Aid can’t work!  Injustice is immutable!

This brings me back to beggars.  As much of reservoir of what liberal guilt as I am, I don’t think I give just because I feel bad.  And I certainly don’t give because I think that fifty cents is appreciably improve anyone’s life.  I do give—and, more broadly, continue with my naïve aspirations to save the world, or at least a chunk of it—because when I do figure out how to do something, I don’t want to be so blinded that I no longer see injustice and so jaded to think there is nothing I can do about it.

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