Thursday, November 16, 2006

Pak Haji and the school fees

Chad and I got a very chatty cab driver the other day. Pak (Mr.) Haji told us he has 12 children and is poor. His title, Haji, implies that you have some money, because it signifies that you've done the Hajj pilgrimage. But he told us the only way he'd gotten to Mecca was by working in Saudi Arabia. Usually the people who join the work-abroad programs are pretty desperate, so that all made sense.

White hat worn by men who've done the Hajj

We chatted away in a perfectly friendly fashion until we got to our destination, when Pak Haji suddenly turned and said, "Can you help me? I've had to take one of my children out of school because I don't have money. I can't afford the school fees."

I felt bad. We have money and he doesn't. But I also felt mad. Why did you have twelve kids, I thought, if you can't afford to send them to school? And your financial strategy is to hit up random foreigners for money? We don't tote around enough cash to pay for a year of school fees, so how are we even supposed to help anyway?

We gave him a few thousand extra rupiah, which is a pittance, and got out as quickly as we could.

Chad and I talked about it quite a bit that afternoon. Chad is perhaps more of a revolutionary than I am, and he argued the guy was just confronting the obvious injustice conferred by our backgrounds and trying to solve it in the simplest way.

But I saw no reason for Pak Haji to have so many children, since birth control is easily obtainable here. Furthermore, the evidence suggested he had more than one wife, and I'm totally opposed to polygamy. (There are all sorts of complex socio-economic arguments against it, but my objection is simple: men are allowed to have multiple spouses here, but women aren't. It's pure sexism!)

Of course, on the other hand, the person who's really at stake here is a child. We should probably pay the school fees, if only so that s/he ends up making better decisions than dear old dad!

There is no resolution to the Pak Haji debate. It's one you have every day as someone from a wealthy country who's living in a poor country. You have money and a lot of people don't. On one extreme, you get paralyzed by guilt and just throw money at everybody you see. On the other, you get hardened enough to walk past the lowliest street beggar without surrendering even a 100-rupiah coin (worth about a penny). My attitude is a sliding scale that changes a hundred times a day.

I suppose a partial answer is to give money to charity, so I'm renewing my effort to do so. I've been slow to choose one because even in the case of nonprofits, you have to watch out for corruption. I'd feel better about saying no to someone like Pak Haji if I knew we were giving to a good organization to help kids with nutrition and school fees. And maybe I'll donate to a population-control group, too!


michele said...

Money is a real pain in the butt, isn't it? But of course I can say that because I have enough of it to feel secure.

As an American who has been able to travel a fair amount, sometimes to places with great poverty, I can totally relate to the dilemma you describe (although I havent lived with it so intensely on a daily basis, as you now do).

Part of me feels like it's an example of my very privelege that allows me to have these internal debates about how to handle the giving of money. Clearly, if I didn't have it to give, and if I didn't feel some guilt about the discrepancy of my wealth vs. another's poverty, I wouldn't be having the debate in the first place.

But frankly it's a dilemma that is also hard and stressful to deal with, and that can't be ignored. Not to sound too corny, but the fact that you're thinking about it and working out your decisions daily shows that you care and are trying to figure out the "right thing to do" - whatever that is.

For what it's worth, I've decided that whenever the situation arises (here at home or when traveling), I opt on the side of giving out some money, to whatever extent I can afford at the time - and as long as I do not feel unsafe doing so at that moment.

For me that is the simplest and best-feeling solution. I've heard of some people who budget their street-side donations by deciding how much they'll give to panhandlers per week. Once that amount has been given out to however many people they enocunter, they're done giving out money for the rest of the week.

I think giving money to charities you trust is good too. I got a kick out of your idea to donate to a population control group! We could use some more of that type of education here in the states as well...

good luck!

Jim said...

Bad luck and bad choices will ensure that there are always needy people in this world. I sympathize with those who suffer from bad luck but am less inclined to help those who make bad choices. Of course it's seldom that clear-cut, as there always seems to be a combination of fate and human failings at work. Your cabbie, however, clearly made some bad choices. We're pretty well off over here, but we wouldn't be if we had 12 children to support.

As for the child him/herself, I think there's little you can do for him/her directly. Who knows what the cabbie does with his money? The cynic in me wonders if he really has 12 children at all, or if he simply has a standard story he pitches to westerners. Kind of like the "Will work for food" approach to panhandling we used to see so often in the US.

At any rate, this sort of encounter always bothers me, too. I usually go with my intuition, but I often wonder if I gave money to a drug habit or walked away from a person who really just needed a little help.

Mary said...

When Matthew and I were recently in Miami (his hometown), we stopped for lunch. As we were walking toward the door, we were approached in the parking lot by a homeless man asking for change.
I ignored him.
Matthew gave him some change.
As we were eating our sandwiches, Matthew looked out the window and pointed, "Hey, look, the man I gave change to bought a sandwich next door!"
I was wrong. I had smuggly ignored the man. Maybe out of fear, judgment? But, the man was looking for change to do something basic and human.
I should know better.
Matthew did.
I guess I needed to be reminded this time.

mr_john said...

If they want food, buy them food. If they want school fees and it's within your budget to give them, tell them to come back to you another time and you'll talk about how you can help.
I never give cash to beggars (especially children). There are so many needy people out there, why should you give to the one who is hassling you? Either donate to a charity, or find someone that you can help and really deserves your money and form a relationship with them and then help them.
Sure, it's harsh, but there's no such thing as a free lunch. If they want my money I need to know that it's not going to support something that I don't agree with.