Ethical Dilemma: Giving More Than We Thought We Gave
A slow, thick summer breeze carried grimy city humidity down New York’s Fifth Avenue. As a river of lunchtime crowds coursed around us, I stood with a chatty girl my age. With her clipboard, brochures, and pressed shirt, she looked identical to her co-workers scattered up and down the block. We were both sweating—she from the heat, I from the awkwardness of the moment. Knowing her ability to keep my attention would directly determine the success of her pitch, she told me about life in India; about how desperate the children were there; about how, for a price, I could support a child and be the change I wanted to see in the world.
After half an hour, I found myself signing her clipboard and turning over the number to my debit card. I walked away from her feeling like I had just done right, like I had done something that would make my parents proud. My girlfriend at the time later told me the way I acted on the street that day was one of the reasons she loved me—I was compassionate.
Now, after spending the past year in Uganda living amidst the fallout of giving, I barely recognize the person I once was.
“I don’t understand why we can’t just deliver it.”
Margaret, my Ugandan co-worker, was staring at me, a thin sliver of a smile veiling her disapproval. Between us at the edge of my desk was a stuffed envelope: a square, manila bomb that neither of us wanted to set off.
A few American visitors had stopped by our office and left the envelope with Margaret earlier in the day. They wanted her to give it to one of our organization’s mentors, hoping that it would find its way to the young girl it was addressed to. The girl, a friend of the visitors, had no mailing address and lived in a village out in the bush. Margaret wanted to honor their request; I wanted her to understand why that would be difficult.
“And what happens then?” I asked. “What happens when we deliver this? Should the girl send a package back to the states? If so, how will she pay for it, for the postage?”
Margaret reached out and snatched the package off the desk. Before I could stop her, she slid her finger under the envelope’s flap and opened it up. One by one and without saying a word, she removed a handful of items from the envelope—pencils, a small Frisbee, a packet of candies, a letter riddled with pleasantries and questions—and laid them on her desk, as if to say, See, nothing in here is a threat. Nothing. This gift is harmless.
“It’s only a gift,” she said, waving at the items spread out before her.
“I know, I know that,” I said. “But it puts pressure on the person who receives it. The girl has to answer the questions posed in that letter. She has to spend money on a response, money she probably doesn’t have.”
“And plus, passing this on to her feeds unhealthy stereotypes—the whole white-people-falling-from-the-sky-with-gifts-in-hand thing. It’s dangerous if Ugandans equate white people with gifts. And who are these Americans anyway? Are they friends of this girl? What type of relationship do they have?” I had raised my voice.
Margaret stared back at me, unsure if she should respond. Flushed and uncomfortable, I wondered if I was being too harsh, if I was overreacting. Could a few pencils and a Frisbee really change the way a child thinks?
Giving to charity is often a straightforward, linear process. First, a donor learns of a situation that inspires him/her to take action—to give. Then, he/she passes money on to an organization. The organization takes that money and applies it to programs aimed at helping beneficiaries. Finally, program staff on the ground work with beneficiaries to pass on strategies or materials, the real world manifestations of the donor’s funds.
Transparent as it may seem, this process has turned my adoptive hometown of Gulu, Uganda into a town at odds with itself, a place capable of churning out moments mired in philosophical conundrums.
For years, because of the way Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) used this area as a staging ground for their decades-long war with the Ugandan people, Gulu has been sitting at the end of the giving process, acting as a goodwill receptacle for international organizations and private donors. Situated along a key trading route near the Sudanese border, Gulu has morphed from a quiet village into a bustling town in the last century. Its high population density made it a target for the LRA, a group that used child abductions to fill its ranks. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, with donor funds from overseas, NGOs began applying salves to community wounds.
However, just as the fighting here—the child abductions, the rapes, the stolen cattle, the middle-of-the-night murders—has scarred the lives of the Acholi, Langese, Karamojong and other northern tribes, the help that the fighting has sparked has also left a wound.There are scores of tangible benefits that have come from the area’s NGO initiatives, but these programs—these vehicles for giving—have also delivered changes in the way people think, created often dangerous shifts in how people see their peers, their work, and on a larger scale, their position and potential in a stratified world.
“I was shocked when I saw my family not digging,” my Ugandan friend Joseph said. “It was the start of the rainy season. ‘What are you doing?’ I asked them when I saw them sitting at my mother’s hut. I asked, ‘Why aren’t you preparing your fields?"
He stared out at the black ribbon of asphalt ahead of us, a narrow road that connects Gulu to the nation’s capital, Kampala. We had a few more hours to go before reaching home, and with a busted radio in the car, words were our only comfort. I waited for him to continue as he dug through the memory.
“You know, they had just returned from life in the camp. For ten years plus they were receiving food from the World Food Program. One of them said to me, 'We are not foolish. We decided not to farm. We are still waiting to meet the right NGO that will help us with food.’ Tssssssk! Can you imagine?”
I told him I couldn’t.
“These are farmers! And they were telling me they are not going to farm?! How can this be?”
The path that connects my house to the main road into town is a narrow, orange footpath that cuts through a gauntlet of brush before opening onto a small dirt road. Late for work, I trudged down it one morning, oblivious to my surroundings.Then:
“Excuse me, excuse me, sir.” A short man in a faded and stained black t-shirt was walking next to me, smiling. “Good morning, sir,” he said, extending his hand. We shook.
“Do you remember me?” he asked. I stopped to get a better look at him.
“You said hello to me just up the road there. It was a week or two ago I think.”
“OK,” I said, unsure of what he was getting at.
The man leaned in close. He had a gap between his two front teeth that was so large I wondered if it was actually a space where an extra tooth had once been. I suddenly became aware of the possibility that this man had been waiting for me to pass, that he’d studied my morning routine and planned this encounter.
Whispering now, he said, “Well, actually, I was hoping, uh, that you would maybe be my friend.” Pause. “I think we would make very good friends. We could spend time together and talk. We could give advice to each other, just like friends. In my heart, I know you to be a very nice man.” Saying this, his voice rose a bit, making his sentence sound more like a question he was asking for the first time.
Reflexively, without giving his request any thought, I started shaking my head. “I’m sorry,” I said. “Thank you for the compliment, but I’m sorry: I can’t be your friend. I know this sounds strange, but this is not the first time people have approached me like this.”
I explained to the man how more than a dozen Ugandans have started the same exact conversation with me before, and I told him, too, how many of those people later asked me for money to help pay their kids’ school fees or buy bus tickets to Kampala. The man protested at first (No, no, you have me wrong—I’m not like those people) but eventually he smiled, wished me a good day, and left.
Later, feeling horrible about the way I brushed off the man, feeling like life in Gulu had turned me into a cold stranger to myself, I talked to Sarah, a Ugandan co-worker, about my response. “Was I being too harsh?” I asked.
“No, of course that man wanted to be your friend so he could get things from you—money or a ticket to the US, probably. Ugandans never speak that way to other Ugandans. It was OK that you walked away. Really, it’s OK.”
Sarah also told me about ‘pen friends’: about how when Ugandans get an American pen pal, they start writing letters with only the culmination of the relationship in mind. “In Uganda, if I have a friend writing letters back and forth to me, in my mind, I think, OK, now I have someone who will help me in the future. Letters usually lead to more,” she said.
I thought back to the letter the Americans dropped off, to the envelope and the conversation I had with Margaret. I wondered how many people in the developed world stumble into these types of relationships. How often do we give and, in the process, let our good intentions pull us right into the snares of complications we didn’t bargain for?
Here in Gulu, many Ugandans see white foreigners as inherently wealthy, perpetually ready and wanting to give out a couple of bucks or a free meal. In turn, these foreigners—often development workers like myself—doubt Ugandan advances of friendship and question motives. Some Ugandans try to ‘double-up’ on support from different NGOs or attempt to embellish their personal histories to meet vulnerability criteria on applications; others like my friend Joseph’s relatives are left with crippling dependencies after a program’s phase-out.
One NGO in town that was providing thousands of scholarships to high school students across the North scaled back their operations last year. With other local organizations unable to ‘absorb’ the now scholarship-less students, hundreds of kids were left scrambling for school fees. I came home one day to find a white envelope waiting for me by the front door. Inside I found a portrait of a teenage girl and a letter written so perfectly it must have been drafted a few times. The girl in the photo, the letter’s author explained, needed help—‘just some small money’—to pay her school fees. For days afterward, I couldn’t help but think that high school kids who waved to me as I passed were simply hoping to lay the groundwork for a relationship that they could eventually tap for assistance.
Of course, cynicism doesn’t shade every relationship here. Genuine friendships between foreigners and Ugandans are not only possible: they are common. As an employee of one of the NGOs in town, though, as someone who is here working for an organization that aims to help people, I’m torn: I see how giving both supports and smothers people. Seeing this duality manifest itself in my community, realizing that giving is in fact a murky, perplexing act, has changed me.
I feel as if my empathy has been worn raw. Even living amidst a tangle of organizations that work to help people, I have been flooded with stories of physical abuse, children succumbing to sickness, and lost educational opportunities. I cringe now when I hear of new start-up NGOs taking root in town, immediately questioning their audacity and level of experience; I don’t flinch when students I am interviewing tell me about the way their parents were killed or raped; the sight of beggars in town—even the one with a thick stump for a leg who carries around his miserable plastic bag of mixed food scraps—stirs up not feelings of pity within me, but surges of frustration and anger; sometimes when kids see me and immediately ask me for money or pens (echoing the met demands they’ve made to other foreigners in the past), I stop in my tracks and, thinking out loud, ask, “Why? Why should I give anything to you?”
The trees lining the road by Kaunda Grounds trap the clouds of dust kicked up by passing cars and trucks. After a few rain-less weeks, the road is perpetually cloaked in a thick, reddish haze. Walking home on this stretch of road at the end of the day, as I was doing, is a gritty, eye-squinting ordeal.
A motorcycle emerged from the haze and screeched to a stop by my side. Both bike and driver fit the profile of one of Gulu’s hundreds of boda bodas, motorcycle taxis that take people around town.
“Where are you going?” the driver asked.
“Near Holy Cross Church, across from the prison,” I said.
“OK, let’s go,” he said, nodding toward the back of his bike. I hopped on and he sped away.
As we were driving, my hand raised to shield my eyes from the dust, I thought about a conversation I had had with a boda driver a few weeks before. The driver had asked me for money to help buy school uniforms for his kids. As I had done before in similar situations, I apologized and explained I couldn’t help him. The irony of the situation, however, was glaring: here was a person canvassing on his own behalf, asking for support in-person, and I was refusing to engage. Yet years before, someone on the street in NYC was able to get me to support a person in India I had never even met. I thought about how Gulu had numbed me, anesthetized me to the stories of brokenness that once surprised and saddened me. It took more now to convince me of someone’s misery.
When we reached my house, I pulled out my wallet and, before I could find a thousand shilling note for the driver, he smacked at the wallet in my hands. Startled, I backed away from the man.
“No, no. You don’t need to pay me,” he said, laughing.
I was confused. “What do you mean?” I asked. “Why not?”
“Because I’m not a boda driver,” he said. “I’m just driving home. You don’t need to pay me.”
A few weeks ago, I decided to make a donation to a charity on my girlfriend’s behalf. The charity—one she likes that provides people with clean water—applies 100% of its donations to program-related expenses (all administrative expenses are covered by a few wealthy donors). The organization has a straightforward website and forces local beneficiary communities to invest in their water projects; intentionality underpins everything it does.
As I clicked the ‘Pay’ button and completed my donation transaction, I felt comfortable, calm. Unlike that sidewalk sponsorship I made years ago, this donation was the end result of research. I thought about the donation before making it, considering the organization’s project history and long-term goals. No nervous sweating in the sun; no pulling of heartstrings.
Sure, my money could end up reinforcing negative stereotypes on the ground. And some of it might even be used to line the pockets of a local government official somewhere. But despite this, I made the donation because I still have faith in giving. I am still convinced of its potential, its ability to catalyze opportunity.
I keep this faith even though I don’t take charity at face value anymore; I’m more critical now, and this, I think, is a good thing. No longer an easy sell, yet still not an expert on development by any means, I have seen enough while living in Gulu to realize that anything can be packaged and sold, that any success story—no matter how small—can be made to shine when taken out of its context and slapped on the front of a glossy brochure. I know that, outside of a post-disaster/crisis environment, a gift that isn’t earned can be a wet blanket for one’s dignity. And I see how giving can make donors feel like God, like fate changers.
But I’ve also met the proud parents of scholarship students; I’ve walked into homes built with the help of micro-loans; I’ve patted the heads of healthy pigs being fattened for market. I have talked to beneficiaries who won’t go back—who can’t go back—to the risky, uncertain lives that once owned them, and their faces are impossible to forget.
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