Monday, January 18, 2016

On the inescapable privilege of privilege

Having worked in poor countries for most of the last four years, there’s a lot about The Guardian’s Secret Aid Worker feature that’s really resonating with me.
    Of course, I continue to attach the most value to pieces that bravely carry the writer’s name, because few things keep you more honest as a writer than putting your stuff out there with your name attached, for all the world to see. But sometimes it’s anonymous or nothing, so I’m cutting some slack to the unidentified writers producing pieces for Secret Aid Worker.
    I’m not exactly an aid worker in my current role of doing communications work for Central American NGOs on behalf of Cuso International. My work experience in Honduras and now Nicaragua has not been that different than it was in Canada, except for much lower pay and a dramatically different work culture. But both home and abroad, I do my work for aid organizations, whether it’s in aid of sex workers back in Canada, or women farmers scratching out a marginal living on tiny plots of land, as it is here in Nicaragua.
    At any rate, the moral dilemmas and ethical conflicts that the aid workers tend to write about in the Guardian feature strike a chord with me. Two recent pieces in particular caught my eye, one about how quickly a person’s idealism to help people in poor countries ends up corrupted by life as a privileged ex-pat; and the other a counterpoint noting that expecting foreign aid workers to “live like monks” is hardly a solution either.
    The Cuso stipend I receive in Nicaragua feels like more or less the going rate for a Nicaraguan communications consultant working in the country. I get the equivalent of about $1,600 CAD a month, which includes up to $585 a month for housing. (Cuso rates vary from country to country and town to town, depending on the cost of living of where a person is placed.)
    You’re working as a professional when you do a Cuso position, and getting a liveable stipend for the work you do is probably important for recruitment and retention. But at the same time, you take a Cuso position because you want to help, not for the money. I think Cuso does a good job of establishing a stipend level that keeps things real for volunteers while also ensuring their safety and comfort.
    But just because I’m paid like a middle-class Nicaraguan doesn’t mean anything else about my experience is the same as theirs. Even if I worked for free, I’d still be privileged just by dint of being born a Canadian.
    Sure, I'm opting to take the city bus to work, and walking in the heat and the dust to Managua’s sprawling public markets with just as much of a desire as any Nicaraguan to score a good price on tomatoes, cucumbers and limes. I’m not going to the pricey restaurants where the rich Nicaraguans eat any more often than my low-paid co-workers.
    But small stuff aside, my life isn’t even remotely comparable to the experience of an average Nicaraguan. (For starters, minimum wage here is less than $500 CAD, and a whole lot of people make nowhere near that much.) However long I might live in Central America, I will never be able to declare that I know how life feels for an average Nicaraguan any more than a comfortable Canadian who spends a night on the street pretending to be homeless knows about how real homelessness feels.
    If there were bugs in my bed, a sickness in my household, a crisis with one of my parents’ health, I could do something about it in an instant. If I hated my boss, I could quit. If I needed a holiday, I could pay for it. If I had to jump on a plane to anywhere in the world to help a family member out of a jam, I’ve got a gold-standard passport that nobody would question, and the credit card and line of credit to make it happen even if my savings weren't adequate.
    If life went sideways on me in Nicaragua, I could pack it all up tomorrow and come running home, to the land of public health insurance, pensions, and subsidized care and bug-free housing. It’s like that line from Pulp’s song Common People – “when you’re laid in bed at night watching roaches climb the wall, you could call your dad and he’d stop it all.”
    And there’s the dilemma. I’m innately privileged, with a comfortable Plan B. Yet if I’m here wanting to be helpful to impoverished Nicaraguans, I absolutely have to check my privilege at the door and consciously consider everything as if I were a struggling Nicaraguan with no safety net. Which I’m not.
     I try to remind myself of that every day, because it really matters. Otherwise, you risk being one of those awful people who forget how privileged their world view is and get petulant when the locals don’t see things the same way they do. Otherwise, you become one of those annoying development types who grows sour from years of disappointments and ends up living like just another rich person enjoying the perks of abundant cheap labour. (Check out "The Reductive Seduction of Other People's Problems" to understand more about why good people go sour.)
     I’ve visited some terrific international development projects. But I’ve also seen a lot that feel foisted on the locals because countries with money to spend presume that what worked in their land will work in others. There’s a certain flavour-of-the-month quality to much of the world’s development work, and much time, energy and hope is wasted trying to force square pegs through round holes.
     Ultimately, a country finds its own path toward change. Economic opportunity, revolution and protest, responsible government, guaranteed rights and a healthy justice system – that’s where real change comes from. Foreigners can play integral parts on all those fronts, but their contributions are most successful when they take their signals from those who live in the country.
     Aid works when it’s based on strategies that call on those with privilege not to come to other countries to implement their own ideas, but to walk alongside people who are already bringing about change in those countries and require help to get there. They need us; people of privilege not only hold the purse strings, but can recognize and develop opportunities that countries enmeshed in poverty don’t yet see.
    So yes, a person from a wealthy country who lives and works in a poor country is privileged. But that’s just how it is.  We can’t pretend to know how it feels to be poor and without a Plan B. I think the best we can do is keep that fact top of mind, and strive to follow rather than lead. 

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