Money and people who want it often get a bad rep—that superficial, self-centered, materialistic, Mr. Scrooge. Likewise, those who don’t have excess cash get the dirty, stupid, and miserable label. People discriminate against socio-economic backgrounds different than their own because of that--it is different. Unknown, therefore scary and threatening.
I do not think that money or the desire to have it is always a "bad" thing; indeed money is often times crucial to people's livelihoods and to spark changes. Money and lack of it can have both positive and negative repercussions. But regardless if we all cannot agree on if money is “good” or “bad”, I think most can say it is “bad” when a mom cannot afford food for her children or when a highly motivated student cannot fund the education he/she wants. The good/bad debate becomes complex when people choose to save or spend their earned money in situations that clearly harm others’ wellbeing… to choose to drive a Hummer when you know how polluted our planet already is; to choose to save $10 to buy a shirt than you know was made in a sweatshop; to choose to spend the little salary you earn on beers when you know your child needs a new school uniform.
We all do it, me included.
Money can be harmful when it is an excuse to not look at the real person, the real problem or the real situation, and furthermore, when it creates power, respect and validation in people and circumstances that otherwise would have none.
- - - - -
Neither “development” nor my Peace Corps objective is to help poor people become rich. Instead, the aim should be to ensure that people’s basic needs (food, clean water, security) and rights (to education, to a job, freedom of expression) are met and moreover change larger societal structures that hinder these needs and rights (conflict resolution, political corruption).
The “When I Grow Up Project” has been a large part of my PC work, especially recently. It gives hard-working and talented students at my school a shot at a higher education degree that they want and deserve. Money has played a “bad” part in this because lack of it inhibited students from even applying.
But now, we officially have 36 students enrolled in a preparatory course and furthermore signed up for the University of Cartagena’s entrance exam! The majority live below the poverty line. However low their family’s income, it is important for each to try to pay for a portion of the entrance exam’s cost so that arguably they will study for and value it more. The exam cost is 100.500 pesos, or about US $53 dollars. Most of the 36 paid 40%, while a few 20%, and the WIGUP funded the rest. In the end, five could not come up with 20.000 pesos (US $10), and, after it was obvious that they tired, the WIGUP paid for 100% of the cost. Most of these students do not live with their family, and getting relatives to send money from another town proved too complicated or the money just did not exist.
A group of us traveled to the bank to pay for all 36 entrance exams. From there, students individually signed-up online, which, because I have a laptop, I helped several to do. Seeing the poverty of my students in writing and numbers never ceased to astonish me… I’ve always known they were poor, but filling out the form for one who I have become especially close with and typing-in that her family of 3 only makes 300.000 pesos, or (US $150) a month, makes her poverty seem more real. Writing down that another lives only with her 20 and 12 year-old brothers and they get no outside financial help takes her family’s finances from rumor to reality.
- - - - -
Across time and place, the “others” are dehumanized to justifying their further alienation. Look at how conquistadors called the natives, how slave owners spoke of their slaves, and how we often speak of those (richer or poorer) outside of our socio-economic class…
The poor are animals and the rich are robots.
Despite living and working here for two years, it shocks me how “normal” my students are despite their extreme poverty, which just goes to show how deep our judgments of the poor (and rich) are rooted. After my family visited my school they replied “they are the same; kids will be kids”—a school without resources or in Colombia doesn’t change that.
It could be me.
That is the shock.
That message that has been ingrained many times over is wrong. Get them in a polo and a North Face backpack (and teach them English), and they would just be another student at my old high school.
The group during our visit to the University of Cartagena (their first time at a university!)
The Linguistics professor, Udiluz, teaching students during
one of our 11-week preparatory course sessions.
Four of the 36 students showing-off their receipts proving
that they ARE signed up to take the university entrance exam!