ETHICAL DILEMMA: Is It OK To Enjoy Modern Comforts In The Midst Of Widespread Poverty?

Valerie Hohman
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“Can I take your order, ma’am?” the man behind the counter asks with a smile. He is wearing a red apron that is the standard Café Coffee Day uniform. I survey the list of rich coffee drinks with names like “Solar Eclipse” and “Special Toffee.”

“Just a black coffee today,” I finally decide. I was out late last night at a club and am in need of unadulterated caffeine.

Looking for some cash, I squeeze my hand into the pocket of my new blue jeans, which cost me about $50 at Select City Walk, a nearby mall. I find just enough to cover my drink and a cab ride to my research interview. The rest of my cash has gone to pay for the air-conditioning I’ve been running nonstop in my apartment over the last few weeks.

“At this rate,” I think as I pay the clerk, “my grant will be gone in no time.”

I rush to my interview, riding past billboards advertising everything from diamond necklaces to high-speed Internet. “Don’t just live,” one admonishes me. “Live big… and apply for a loan today.”
Welcome to my life in New Delhi, India, where I’ve come to research urban poverty and development.

Before this trip, I spent a fair amount of time preparing for the raw realities of poverty in India. I braced myself to handle the straggling children and beggars that I’d experienced on previous trips to the subcontinent.

Yet what I failed to prepare for is the new affluence that abounds in South Delhi, where I and the majority of other local Fulbright researchers are based. This is the face of the “new” India: malls selling iPhones and Gucci handbags, a booming IT sector, and young professionals packing trendy coffee shops in every market.

On my first trip to India in 2001, the only coffee I ever drank was instant Nescafe – harsh, acidic, but irrefutably frugal.

I am unnerved to now have easy access to so many luxuries in India, knowing that I need only turn a corner in Delhi to witness striking poverty. the latest statistics report that 50 percent of Delhi’s population lives in slum conditions.

How much comfort should I allow myself when I live and work in a city of such stark economic disparity? As a professional in the social sector, does taking advantage of modern conveniences mean that I am sacrificing an authentic understanding of the issues I confront in my work?

Back in 2001, I definitely believed that “doing without” was an important aspect of my experience abroad. I considered my rustic guest room, sporadic Internet access, and restricted dining options to be part of my education.

Likewise, it was an exercise in modesty to remember that as a foreigner I had more resources than most of the Indians I met. I was once chided by a fellow American student when I forgot myself and casually mentioned the hundreds of rupees I had in my wallet. “Most well-paid professionals here don’t make more than a few thousand rupees a month,” she reminded me. I was shamed and immediately self-conscious of my privileged status.

Now, eight years later, I find myself among middle-class Indians with plenty of disposable income and expensive tastes.

“The change is unbelievable,” an Indian friend of mine in the United States remarked. “Ten years ago, when I was going to school in India, my total living budget was 1,200 rupees. Now, on my last trip to Delhi, I spent that much on three beers during a night on the town.”

So do I join my peers and spend money on comforts that make me feel at home? Or do I sacrifice comfort the way I did on my first trip to India?

Perhaps in 2001 I was naive to think that approximating poverty in my own life was the same as empathizing with the poor. As my friend Meredith put it, “I did the India thing—no air conditioning, creaky beds, sketchy bedding. But now I think ‘why?’ Middle-class Indians think you’re crazy if you don’t take advantage of modern conveniences. There’s no virtue in depriving yourself of comfort.”

I’ve heard Meredith’s sentiments echoed by other researchers in the field. And I’ve discovered that having a comfortable place to live in a chaotic city like Delhi is essential to my own happiness and productivity. My closest friends and colleagues, both Indian and expat, are English-speaking professionals, and maintaining relationships with then often requires at least tacit participation in a middle-class lifestyle.

But on the flip side, I think that I miss opportunities to connect across the boundaries of class and wealth when I spend too much time eating Western food, purchasing brand names I know from home, and casually enjoying expensive coffee. Also, much of my work has been interviewing professionals in the development field, rather than being out in poor communities themselves. While great for networking, I’ve found that this leaves me feeling disconnected from the people I want to help through my work.

The solution is not necessarily giving up nice coffee or the comfort of my apartment, but rather making sure I do have opportunities to interact with people in poor communities. To that end, in the next few months I am visiting Delhi’s slums and talking with people who live there about their economic ambitions. I’m also considering volunteering with a nonprofit that does “hands-on” work in one of these communities—a great way to build relationships and engage with people I wouldn’t normally interact with.

More than luxuries themselves, it’s a lack of communication that divides us. While I’m glad to have alternatives to Nescafé, I’m not here to “live big” in Delhi. I’m here to understand what it takes to build an equitable city, and that requires a willingness to listen and connect more than anything else.


Posted on 5/17/2010 by

Carlo Alcos

Carlo Alcos

Very thought provoking and valid. What a dilemma. I think you can debate both sides of the coin to no conclusion. Sounds like balance is in order.

Posted on 5/18/2010 by

Nick Rowlands

Nick Rowlands

Thoughtful piece, and as you (and Carlo) say, a difficult issue to get your head round. I live in Cairo, where similar disparities occur. Occasionally, I'll spend more on a single meal than most people earn in a month. But conversely, I drink in local cafes, shop in local markets, take buses or the metro and so on. (Actually, I believe one of the privileges of living as an expat can be the ability to move between different worlds within your adopted country.) As you say, balance is the key.

Posted on 10/20/2010 by

Gabrielle Gibson

Gabrielle Gibson

I agree with the other posters--BIG delimma. But as Nick states being able to move between both worlds is important--think of yourself as the middleman (or middlewoman) of socioeconomic understanding between both worlds especially since you aim is to work with those in the slums. What good are you to them if you only study them but do not bring others from their loft ivory towers to offer a hand up in whichever way that individual needs and/or desires? I'm looking forward to my volunteer experience in India and your article brings up some very good issues that I have been rolling around mentally. 5 stars and 2 thumbs up!!

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