After a day or two in Mata los Indios, a rural, poor village in Dominican Republic, we reflected on what we had seen and what we could do. We came there with the intention of assessing the needs of the community and mapping their assets, in an attempt to persuade Esperanza International to open a Bank of Hope. This Bank of Hope would most likely be funded by a donation raised by our group of 40 people in a capstone class in poverty and social enterprise. The Bank of Hope would help 25 or so families start their own businesses with a series of small loans that they would repay over a 6-12 month period, with a relatively low interest rate. The interest would pay for services like health and dental, which the community badly needs.
That was the plan. Use our questionnaire and our Spanish to take thorough notes of the community, literally map them out, present our findings to Esperanza, and come back to the states to do a more thorough analysis. And hopefully, at some point, make an actual damn argument about it.
But then we saw the community. As we reflected, some people were getting pretty choked up (did you not know people are poor?). Professor was saying it had been a long time since he had seen poverty this bad (you mean since last summer?). There was shock that people were only eating once a day (that wasn’t in our questionnaire, and no one wanted to talk about it–how did you learn this?). Then there was the woman who had lost 9 of her 10 children (ok really, what kind of intrusive questions are you asking to get this stuff?).
I sort of felt like a robot.
At this point, we were basically ordered to make a considerable, one-time food donation. This seems logical. They are hungry, we are not. They need food, we have money. Except this is not a group of missionaries. We are students who study how to develop poor areas in a sustainable and socially responsible way. A one-time donation is not sustainable. We are linked to Esperanza, so that may send an incorrect impression about what Esperanza does. We are almost entirely white; this might send the wrong message about what the presence of gringos means. These are the landmines we have been taught to look for. And here we were, plowing forward with our one tonne of rice.
We went through the local pastor, and created the equal portions ourselves, which were equivalent to about one month’s worth of food per family. I have no idea how that was calculated. Every household was to receive one. No more, no less. While this meant no one could get screwed out of their food, it also meant some people perhaps got more than they deserved/needed, while others got less. But in a community where everyone lives on less than $1 a day, how bad could that disparity be? the food would be dropped off and distributed without us there, which was a good decision. Except maybe some people went? It’s unclear.
Professor asked Esperanza, our partner and a micro-enterprise institution (MFI), what they thought about what we did. Their response was polite, but they had concerns. They didn’t want Esperanza to be interpreted as party to this, their central message is that working to lift yourself out of poverty is more effective and dignified than receiving charity, and they were concerned that the distribution may not have been equitable. Here, equitable would mean going to who needs it most, not necessarily giving out fair portions to all.
If I had been able to answer, I would have said this, exactly: Gracias para todo tus consejos, y creo que estamos de acuerdos por la mayoridad. Pero, no podemos hacer lo que es mejor ahora mismo. No tenemos este abilidad. We all agree, for the most part, with what you said. However, we cannot do what is best right now. We don’t have that ability.
We aren’t a micro-finance institution, and unless they would help us, we were utterly impotent to do anything else for the people of Mata. And as it became clear that our allegiance was to working with Esperanza (regardless of whether they help Mata) instead of to Mata (to help them somehow, even if Esperanza wasn’t the answer), it felt imperative that we do something, anyhting, to help.
I only hope that one thing I didn’t list as a concern doesn’t happen: that the food drop doesn’t help us was our hands of MatalosIndios. That we don’t check it off our list and move on, because rural is a pain, and we miss electricity, and Esperanza may not agree to help them.
Was what we did okay? I don’t know. It certainly isn’t what we’re taught to do. And I do think it contributes to mismanaged expectations, which is another post unto itself. But I think it’s a very human impulse to feed someone when they’re sitting next to you, hungry. And I think we should cultivate that impulse, because sometimes the friend who needs help the most isn’t next to you at all, they’re halfway around the world.