To give, or not to give…

On a recent trip to Jamaica, I saw what every tourist expects to see from this particular tropical destination. I was treated to glorious beaches with glistening seas which stretch seamlessly to the horizon, and the lush tranquillity of verdant landscapes, blushing with an array of vibrant flowers and fruit of numerous colours and descriptions. But beyond the confines of the various all-inclusive hotels which line the North Coast, and the neat suburban neighbourhoods occupied by returnees and Jamaicans from the professional classes, another side of Jamaica rests uneasily at the fringes.

The Jamaica experienced by the poor is all too visible, an uncomfortable juxtaposition against the relative wealth of the town centre and the craft markets, to which tourists are herded to and from, insulated from direct contact in air conditioned buses, to spend their money in designated air conditioned shopping centres. But despite the insulation from the pervasive poverty which scars this island, it is still impossible to avoid contact with persistent sellers in the craft market, or constant pleas for a few dollars from desperate looking strangers. The sheer volume of it all quickly becomes overwhelming, when you realise that you can either decide to give to everyone who asks, or decline every request. Given the unsustainability of the former, you opt for the latter, locking off your sympathy for the sake of self-preservation and deferring the churning sense of helpless guilt until later.

I have always held a grim fascination for such scenarios, where you struggle to unravel the complexity of contrasts, when the insulation of privilege jars against the raw exposure to poverty. The difficulty lies in understanding and defining the concepts of ‘privilege’ and ‘poverty’, as both of these concepts are subject to relative perception. It is easy to recognise the material abundance of the extremely wealthy, just as it is to recognise the material deprivation of the abject poor, but most of us fall in between those two extremes. Furthermore, when looking purely at the two extreme ends of the spectrum; to measure wealth or poverty, purely by means of the presence or lack of material goods is arguably a narrow understanding of the concepts of wealth and poverty. Wealth and poverty can manifest in various forms, of a spiritual, physical, emotional or social nature, in which economic advantage or disadvantage holds little relevance.

But extremities on the spectrum aside, further complexities lie for all of us when considering the scenario on the street, of the apparently poor stranger, asking the apparently wealthy stranger for money. From the ‘poor’ end of that interaction, is an inherent assumption, of the right to ask for what the ‘wealthy’ person has, regardless of the true picture of the stranger’s wealth and how it was attained. Controversial as this point may seem, it is an assumption based on a perception of entitlement and effectively disempowers both parties, as the resultant giving is more likely to be borne from guilt, as opposed to being an act of genuine philanthropy. Instinctively speaking, guilt is not a sustainable basis for giving, as it is bound to lead to a hardening of empathy for the range of factors which may have contributed to that stranger’s state of economic poverty, which compelled them to ask in the first place.

This issue is one which has been wrestled with for many years at a governmental level. An early, notable example is reflected in the Elizabethan Poor Law in England, passed in 1601, consolidating earlier governmental policies concerning the treatment of the poor. In this Act of Parliament, the poor were classified into the ‘deserving poor’ consisting of those considered to be vulnerable, such as the sick, the elderly and children; the ‘deserving unemployed’, who were unemployed but willing to work, and the ‘undeserving poor’, who resort to criminality or begging. These classifications still pervade our view of the poor, with the reasoning that we should show compassion to those who we feel deserve our charity, while withholding our goodwill towards those who can, but will not help themselves. While this approach makes sense in theory, in practice, it is difficult to make a clear judgement on the underlying issues which may contribute to a life of criminality or begging. Unlike Elizabethan England, we now have more awareness of the debilitating effects of factors such as mental illness, lack of educational opportunities, and various forms of social deprivation, which often restrict access to positive engagement with society, consigning many to a voiceless underclass.

Related article:

The Place where Christmas is at:

There are no comfortable conclusions to this issue, but it is a debate which I will continue to grapple with, encounter by encounter, underscored by the belief that everyone on this planet is entitled to access to opportunities, which lead to self-empowerment. For when one suffers, we all do.


Leave a Reply