The exchange rate in Peru gives me a little under 6 soles for $2 a day. A can of tuna at the supermarket costs five, which sounds daunting but does not mean the challenge is impossible. At my closest back-road market I find whole fish the size of my foot for only two soles. The heaps of gruff harvest foods brought into the city from farming communities always have better prices and freshness. Because of this I spend my afternoons snooping around the outskirt hillside neighborhoods to find the best produce for my meals. In the morning you can find me sitting on the curb by a street vendor gnawing on cheese bread or fried nuts. The disadvantage is a higher risk of food borne illness due to food that is dirty or ill cared for. The advantage, though, is I often wind up next to those who live on the streets; a chance to observe, sit, and think.
Someone close to me enjoys referring to this story as I’m sure a lot of people do: when hundreds of starfish wash ashore to dry in the sun and the little girl is picking them up and throwing them back into the sea. The man comes along and says ‘You know you can’t make a difference, there’s too many.’ The girl tosses another one in and says ‘It made a difference to him.’ The point is that helping a few is better than helping none at all, but in terms of poverty there is a revealing undertone to this simple tale. Every person has a history.
I find that over 90 percent of the time I pass an indigenous person begging on the streets of Cuzco, I give her nothing. We all do it. We pretend to be intently listening to our car radio as the man hobbles along the median with a sign on his chest and a cup in his hand. There’s no sure way to tell where they came from or who they are. For all I know this woman could have gambled her savings away on cigarettes and coca and I would never condone my hard earned coin to such a theatrically wasted cause on the side of the road.
I believe that many in need do make poor choices and that hard work is in fact the path to success. But what a large number of people choose to forget is the reality of a painful injustice: When the entrapping circumstances of misfortune keep those with good intentions from ever reaping the benefits of their hard work. Our worries of donating to the wrong cause are part of that. If I really were living on two dollars a day, and I found myself sitting beside this woman, the man passing by would have no idea she actually wanted to feed her children and I was scheming to buy alcohol at the end of the week. He would do nothing and add to the perpetual cycle of the unfortunate. To the girl we would both look like two identical starfish.
In this hypothetical situation, however, I would not be begging for alcohol, I would be asking for money to get more food. I can tell you it would make a world of difference, right now, if someone dropped a coin at my feet because it would mean three carrots to last the day instead of one. Sometimes we omit from our memories the fact that other starfish like us are up on the beach while we enjoy slurping around under the waves and starfishing in our seabeds. I’m not so rash as to say that every donation is a worthy cause or that each recipient deserves it in full. Only that fear of doing bad may keep us from ever doing any good.