Generosity, Money, and Abstraction: Julian’s story

There’s a lesson that’s been repeated so many times it seems a little cliché – “Give someone a fish and you feed her for a day. Teach her to fish and you feed her for a lifetime”.

This lesson is abstract but very much connected to what’s going on in Haiti. It’s a lesson that gets repeated a lot… possibly to the point where we get annoyed at hearing it yet again. I think it’s repeated so often because year after year, decade after decade, century after century, do-gooders like myself still have something to learn from repeating it, if we want to really make a difference.

A few short years ago as I started my adult, no-longer-in-school, life, I was intensely focused on efficiency. (People who knew me then might laugh and could probably tell stories about how “intense” might be an understatement.) Anyway, this led me to look to money as a way to make a difference. It led me to choose underdeveloped countries, and Haiti in particular, as a place to make a difference. (Haiti is a country where you can feed someone for a day for $1, or send a child to school for a  year for $100 — certainly not the case in wealthier countries.)

Money’s a very abstract thing. The fact that the same money may buy ten mangoes there or one mango here… ten years of elementary school in one location and ten days of elementary school in another — highlights how intangible or “un-real” money can be.

That wasn’t really a concern to me when I started helping out in Haiti. Giving away some of my personal wealth felt “right” and so I did, knowing that it would be appreciated and useful, and trusting that people I was connected with in Haiti would see that the money got used in the best way possible.

I started out with some youthful enthusiasm and a lot of facts and information, but no idea what it would be like to have years of experience participating in this community work. As the short term joy of following my passion started to give way to building long-term relationships and figuring out what that would look like, I really started to deal with how this stuff was going to look when we committed ourselves to making a long-term difference.

Money gave people in Haiti a good amount of autonomy because they could spend it on whatever their own priorities were. But Haitians I worked with were very careful to spend in ways consistent with their understanding of the donors’ wishes, so to an extent freedom and autonomy were still missing. I would have been willing to give up on that, except that my ability to come up with money (from my paycheck or someone else’s) was pretty limited: I could actually feed a few people…even  for a lifetime… just spending my own money and that of a few friends. But changing a few people’s lives (at quite some cost to myself and my friends and family) was not really what I was after.

When I read about microcredit I knew I had found something good. Things got really abstract — now I and my friends were not giving people food and shelter. We weren’t giving people money to buy food and shelter, or schooling that was supposed to eventually have them buy food and shelter. It started to get abstract and complicated because we were loaning people money to go run small retail businesses so they could get more money and THEN buy food and shelter or whatever it is they wanted. I noticed this new approach depended on the people we were helping to do a lot of the work and required me to put a lot of trust in them to do what was right. I also had very little confidence (and so far not a whole lot of success) explaining this abstract thing to Americans in a way that would bring in donations. I am a work in progress.

Teaching people to fish. For money. Or something like that. 🙂

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This post was partly inspired by some bits from the Bible: ‘I was hungry, and you fed me‘ and The Story of Talents