Reflections from IDIP in India on Suffering and Privilege
Every day I get to work through a combination of walking, busing and rickshaw-ing. However, some days when I’m feeling adventurous and stir-crazy, I skip the busing part and walk the extra 3 km for a total of … oh only 4.3 kilometers... It seems a lot longer… Today, because I was feeling particularly antsy, I did it both ways, meaning I walked at least 8.6 kilometers. On these walks, I don’t have my phone or laptop or any piece of technology, which is refreshing as my job here entails me being immersed with tech.
These walks are good for me because they remind me where I am and why I am here. But sometimes this reminder can be extremely uncomfortable. I work in an office and live in a wonderful home, and generally find myself comfortable, eating well, and living very similarly to how I live in the US. But I’m not in the US. I’m in a country of 1.4 billion people, 32.7% of whom live below the international extreme poverty line of $1.25 per day. Of course, India is a study in contrasts, but that does not take away from the numbers of the poor, and the fact that urban poverty is only growing with population in the country. While contrasts mean heterogeneity and diversity, the word is also synonymous with something much darker: inequality. Due in large part to migration to urban centers, the Gini coefficient, which measures the rich-poor gap in Maharashtra has only grown in the last ten years (INDS Income, Poverty, and Inequality Report).
I don’t need to reference statistics to prove this point to myself however, because I can see it every day. It’s poverty that moves you, it makes you extremely uncomfortable, it cannot be ignored. Whenever I witness poverty like this, it makes me reflect a lot on what it means to be human, what it means to see suffering. I sometimes think about how much I could do with my life savings, just give it all away to someone who needs it much more than I do. Is it helping? Is it just throwing money into an inescapable ditch? Poverty like this makes you want to do something and do it now. “Why isn’t anyone helping this woman?” I think, as I too walk quickly past her, ignoring her pleas entirely.
I can’t stop thinking about this blog post I read almost a year and a half ago. It’s from a non-profit [that allows] donors to give cash directly to the extreme poor. In many ways [this] answers my problem about “doing something now.” The organization understands that often what the poor need is not good and services but just cash. The blog that comes to mind is one…in which the [organization’s] team members were asked whether they gave cash to the homeless in New York and surprisingly, a lot of the team answered a resounding “no.” I mean maybe not surprising for the average person, but isn’t this their mission? That the poor know better and that we should be more empathetic and sympathetic to that? That we cannot just witness suffering and move on? The reasons were that there wasn’t a lot of measurement and evaluation on if it would work or how they would spend the money and that giving money to poor people overseas is “more cost effective.”
It made me angry when I first read the blog. How could they give straight up cash to a person thousands of miles away, but when looking at a poor person in their own context, treat them with absolutely no trust…
Giving money to those in extreme poverty overseas is an experiment! Why not make it an experiment here. It makes me realize that the point of organizations like [this] isn’t really to alleviate suffering, often it’s the draw of large datasets and that giving cash is a catchy and new age idea. It also points to a lot of implicit biases about the poor. Poor in developing countries are children…[who] cannot be responsible for doing bad, whereas poor in the US are lazy because the US is a developed nation with more opportunity. Poverty in developing countries happened to the poor. I think it made me so mad because I’m really furious at myself and, to a larger extent, international development. It is the business of ailing suffering, so where is our compassion?
I do worry that concentration on measurement and evaluation, results, data, and technology may be just an exercise in carving out minuscule problems for ourselves so we can just solve something, anything, related to the suffering we see around us. Maybe, if I can just do one thing, make someone smile, offer a child the mirage of dreaming about a better future, “save” one person from dying of a preventable disease, it will make me feel better about benefiting so much from a fundamentally unequal society. I guess this is returning to the idea…[of] treating poverty like some sort of unintentional consequence of living in the world. It’s not. It’s made and allowed to exist by us. And our language surrounding poverty absconds the responsibility of the privileged to recognize their part.
It’s poverty that moves you, it makes you extremely uncomfortable, it cannot be ignored. Whenever I witness poverty like this, it makes me reflect a lot on what it means to be human, what it means to see suffering.Logan McDonald '15, Economics IDIP India