Sunday, May 23, 2010

Kristof's gamble

"It’s a blunt truth that is politically incorrect, heartbreaking, frustrating and ubiquitous:

It’s that if the poorest families spent as much money educating their children as they do on wine, cigarettes and prostitutes, their children’s prospects would be transformed. "

Wow. That is quite a claim from Nicholas Kristof. It makes me wonder if he has done any tallies of his own expenses recently. Does he really feel that confident in the way he uses his own money?

Because frankly, I can't imagine it. I can't imagine the self-confidence it takes to publicly judge the way someone else uses their money. Especially someone who lives on less than 1/1000 of the income you live on. I mean...really? Can you be so comfortable in the way that you use all of your money, that you can criticize the way the poorest people in the world use theirs?

I find it shocking because I've been there. When I lived in Congo I lived well-below the standards of most of my fellow ex-pats. We lived in a local apartment, our neighbors were Congolese. We had no hot water and often no running water at all. We really did live quite modestly on most accounts. And still we lived WELL ABOVE the standards that most Congolese are able to live in. And that haunted me. Sometimes we ate out at restaurants, or went to the beach, or bought bootleg American movies, or played tennis. Because sometimes we just needed a break. And I can state without a doubt that the average person in Goma would not dream of spending money on those activities... Except maybe the bootleg movies...

So I'd be really interested to know what hotels Kristof stays in and what restaurants he eats in as he travels the world writing about poverty. Does this never haunt him? Does he never glance at the price of all those plane tickets he uses, and wonder if it is the right choice?

My point is this. It is a grey area. We all make choices with our money and our time that aren't always the most reasonable or the most far-sighted. Sometimes our choices are just the only way we can face tomorrow. And sometimes there is a good reason for our choices, even if it isn't visible.

Now I'm not saying that wine, cigarettes and prostitutes are good uses of anyone's money, poor or rich. But I think Kristof is missing the whole picture there. Cigarette smoking is not particularly prevalent in the parts of Africa I have seen, and the people who do it are generally young men, soldiers. Likewise, prostitutes seem particularly prevalent in areas where soldiers congregate. Of course there are heads of households who probably waste much-needed money on prostitutes and cigarettes but I would not say that this is so common that it is stalling the future of Africa's children. There are many other influences at work there.

Drinking, on the other hand, is a big one (but let's be clear on the use of his term one is drinking merlot here...we're talking beer and local brews) Still, too high a percentage of poor family's incomes does get drunk by the male head of household. It does happen too often. But it is not a ubiquitous truth. For every man that drinks too much, there are men who don't.

I have sometimes judged people, like Kristof does, although I am ashamed to admit it. I have seen very poor families with cell phones or television sets, and wondered at the choice. I have shaken my head at the festivities for "Women's Day" where it seems every woman buys a new outfit, no matter whether she can afford it. I have arched my eye brows at the many women in Congo who pay $5 to have their hair braided.

In fact, in Congo people love festivities. Women love to dress up and march down the street. It's an escape, and a chance to relax. I do the same thing. But it's easy to judge more harshly the way poor people spend money. They have limited resources so it is easy to make the argument that they are using precious resources unwisely. But should we really judge them more strictly just because they have less resources? Do we get a pass on how we use our money, just because we have more of it? It seems a little unfair. So perhaps we should begin with the question of why any of us spends money on non-essential items. The money I spent on this computer could have paid the school fees for 8 children for a year. Why don't we just pack up all that extra money and make schooling free for everyone? I mean who really needs that vacation, those clothes, that cell phone, that car...If we really thought we could just pack that money off and end poverty in the world, I think a decent percentage of people would consider it. But it's not so simple eh?

Which leads us back to Kristof's primary suggestion. He suggests that if poor families spent less money on wine, cigarettes and prostitutes "their children's prospects would be transformed".

If only that were true, I'm sure that almost every family would jump on board. The fact is that all of the families that I knew in Goma heavily prioritized school fees. They struggled to pay them consistently, but they were always trying. And it wasn't just the school fees, it was the school uniform, the shoes, the notebooks, the pens...

Times 6 or 7 or 10. Because everyone I knew was struggling not only to pay school fees for their own children, but for various other family members as well.

And, if we are being honest here, how often does that struggle really pay off? The schools in Congo are terribly overcrowded, the teachers are terribly underpaid and therefor under-qualified, there are no books and the opportunities for employment when you finish school are minimal.

I am a teacher. I am not arguing that school is not important or in fact transformational. But just squeezing out those extra dollars to pay that school fee is hardly a promise of transformation. The quality of the school does matter. And It takes years and years of squeezing out that money each month, for not just one child but many. It takes electricity for them to study at night. Water for them to wash up in the morning. It takes the ability and the time to help them with their schoolwork, work that you perhaps know nothing about. It takes hoping that they won't get sick, and you won't get sick, and fighting won't break out, and the teachers won't go on strike. And it takes hoping that somehow when that child graduates ten years from now, that there will miraculously be a job for her, even if she isn't the right tribe and she doesn't have the right connections. That sounds like quite a gamble.

Yes it is a gamble they should take, and is certainly a better gamble than cigarettes or wine or prostitution. But it is not an easy road, and sometimes we all need a break.

Yes you are right, it would be better to not waste a cent. Or a franc, I guess I should say. But which of us really follows that?

Perhaps Mr. Kristof does. I guess they probably bring him free drinks on all of his flights. Good thing he gets to fly.

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