Saying ‘No’

A few weeks ago, while enjoying a day off from the work site in Esteli, an incident at the nearby burger joint – Downing’s Burgers – made me stop and think. A woman and a girl child walked in while I was enjoying a Coke with my burger and fries. Before we get there, I feel like I should add some context.

While in Edmonton, Canada, it is very common to walk around downtown and be asked for spare change. It can be difficult to gauge who is needing of financial help, as you may come across an individual every single day. I’ve even heard the same story – “My vehicle ran out of gas down the road and I need 5 dollars for a fuel can deposit. Can you help?” – from a guy a whole year apart. My usual response is to say “No” as Edmonton has a number of support services to help people in need, even if they are poorly funded. I also feel that I am not in an informed state to hand over money, in case the individual is currently using alcohol or drugs.

Now, moving back to Nicaragua and nearing my point. Within the first few hours of arriving in Managua and touring the city, our team was hit with requests for money. The most memorable was a young boy selling bags of water in the city square. Here we were, a group of 14 privileged Canadians with our iPhones taking photos, and there he was, a boy whose name we never learned, carrying around a bucket filled with water sachets repeatedly asking us to buy one. The cost? 4 cordobas or about 16 cents.

No one purchased water from the boy.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. He was selling something – bags of water – that none of us needed. We all had bottled waters from our tour guide and did not need more.

We were not there to provide charity through small cash handouts.

A few weeks later, we were exposed to a similar, but different, experience.

On our morning commute, taking the ‘Rosario Hospital’ bus for about 30 minutes, a change in the normal ride occurred. A man walked up the front of the bus, lifted up his shirt, and began ranting. There, on his chest, was a large, diagonal scar going from above his hip to the center of his sternum. Now, because he was talking in Spanish (quite quickly, too) and my understanding was still very low at that point, I did not get the reasoning for his rant, but put two-and-two-together. He then starting walking down the aisle and people began giving him change out of their pockets.

Should our team have given him some small change? How do we know what he would use it for? What impact would that give to other people?

I’m not sure what the right answer is. I didn’t give the man with the scar any money and I’m not sure if anyone from the team did.

So, going back to where I started. I had walked just a few short steps from our hostel to the nearby restaurant for a burger. While I was enjoying my cool, refreshing soda and waiting for my order, a woman walked in. She outstretched her hand to me and asked for money. I’ve not sure if she said “Uno” meaning one, “Dinero” meaning money, or even if she said anything. But I went to my instant response of “No”. I didn’t consider why she was asking for money. I didn’t even notice that she had a small girl with her.

She then moved to another patron and did the same action. He gave a few coins. She moved to another table, where a man was eating a sandwich, and they talked for a bit. I don’t know what was said but in the end, she reached towards his plate and took half of the sandwich. She was about to leave, but then came back to me, hand stretched out in the usual fashion. Now I was thinking more about it.

I had no coins. The smallest bill I had in my wallet was 100 cordobas, equivalent to 4 dollars. After some hesitation, I again said “No”.

Around this same time, I was reading Peter Singer’s book The Life You Can Save and reflected upon the part where Singer tells the reader that although we set up rules to govern our behavior – tithing 10%, tutoring a schoolchild – and try to be fair, sometimes we need to do more. He gives the following thought experiment:

  • If 10 kids were drowning in a lake and 10 adults were standing at the shoreline, it would be entirely reasonable for each adult to save one child. But, if only 5 adults rushed in, saving a total of 5 children, since the other 5 adults could not be bothered, would it stand the the other drowning children should not be saved? Surely, the answer is no. You would do your best to save as many as possible, even if the burden was not shared equally.

If I tell myself that I will not hand out spare change because I support causes that tackle the issues of poverty, does that mean that I should never hand out spare change?

After my interaction with the lady at Downing’s Burgers, I started to question my prior notions.

Here I was in a country of lower standards of living, as compared to Canada. Should that not be considered?

I was in a restaurant ordering food, so obviously I had money. And here was a woman who was hungry enough to beg for help. I didn’t give her anything because I gave myself enough excuses not to.

Was $4 too much of a handout? Or would it have helped her through a challenging time in her life? I’m not sure.

But I wish I gave her something.

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