To Give or Not to Give

Haitian-currency_553021gm-tOne of the hardest things about living in Haiti is being asked for money on a regular basis. In a society with such high unemployment and such threadbare social assistance, there is no stigma attached to asking someone of means for help in sending a child to school, paying a doctor’s bill, or buying a pair of shoes. Since moving here, I have been asked for help from people who wanted to buy shoes, put on a wedding, have eye surgery, redeem a pawned wedding ring, and more.

Other than the awkwardness of being asked point-blank for money, two things complicate the situation: 1) Not everyone genuinely has need, but many do, and it’s not always easy to tell them apart. 2) It is customary to ask for much more than one needs, but not everyone does, and it is hard to tell these cases apart, too. I want to help people, but I don’t want to enable a patronage system or kill someone’s initiative and determination to provide for themselves. Sometimes, charity can hurt as much as it helps.

The hardest part of the giving system, though, is that people will generally accept anything you give them without complaining. Sometimes that might because they high-balled it to begin with, but whenever I turn someone down or give them only a percentage of what they asked for, I always end up wondering for a while afterwards whether I made the right decision.

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