Today it’s International Day of Charity.

This got me thinking about a recent discussion with friends on the merits of India. One friend said she’d love to go ‘if it were not for the poverty’.

india photo

Yes, there is poverty, and it’s a raw, painful, often extreme poverty, which clumsily plonks itself beside elegant marble clad luxury.

But poverty exists everywhere, not just in India. We just don’t see it; or it’s neatly tucked away behind a security gate, a wall or invisible border. Perhaps we see it on the television, but we rarely have to witness it in person.

Like many Expaters, I’ve lived in countries where I’ve been forced to look poverty in its eye. I’ve tried to look away, telling myself that I can’t make a difference, that I’ll donate to a charity later rather than risk any donation going towards gang leaders, drugs or the like. I feel guilty for their lifestyle, grateful for my own and unsettled about what to do.

slum photo

I know what you’re thinking. First world problems, huh?

In Angola on one of many occasions when the air conditioning failed, I opened the window for some ‘fresh air’. Then I noticed a small boy with a swollen belly deftly scale three stories up to an apartment block terrace like a daddy longlegs; it was like his was strolling along on all fours, not risking his life in 40-degree heat. The beauty of his moves jarred with the scars on his body and his dirty, matted hair. Inspecting the air conditioning units one by one, he selected one, ripped out a pipe and leaned underneath to drink the waste fluid. And I sat watching.

I know I’m not alone in this expat luxury meets extreme poverty guilt scenario. We lament our first world grief with friends over skinny lattes, pledge to make a change, make a token donation and then life returns back to normal.

Even the do-gooders aren’t spared. One Expater friend working for a development NGO in Uganda mentioned how it felt ‘a bit wrong’ to wash her face with an expensive facial cleanser with water from a household bucket.

But there is perhaps one thing more dangerous than this first world unease – the normalisation of poverty. And this is a condition which many of us expats are guilty of. When you spend every day confronted by the misery of poverty, when it affects your daily life on a mundane practical level, it’s easy to become immune to any internal questioning. The beggars who slow down your commute, the street hawkers who hassle you on your way to a meeting, or perhaps the cook, cleaner or driver who make you run late because their life is a daily struggle.slum photo

After seeing the boy drink from the air conditioning I spent the next day donating to anyone who looked in need and offering what little help I could, but soon after I was brushing away people I felt were on a mission to scam me.

Of course we have to get on with our own lives, we have to toughen ourselves against the scams out there, but surely it’s right to feel uneasy when poverty taps you on the back?

For sure it’s much better to do something about it, and as newbie expats it takes time to figure out the best way to help. It’s wise to ask locals, to listen to the people who understand and care, but also to be mindful that we don’t go straight from internal wrangling to not noticing, from unease to indifference.

Isn’t it sad that International Day of Charity is just one day out of 365?

At an interview a manager once asked me if I felt comfortable working for a luxury brand considering my background in developing countries. The answer is yes. Luxury brands generally have the power, as well as the social responsibility to foster change for the better. Whether they make the change for the right reasons is sometimes debatable, but they’re profit making companies, not charities. As long as the powerless are not exploited and the end result is positive, who cares?

View from my apartment block in Luanda, 2010

Addressing poverty as an expat is uncomfortable. Of course it’s far more uncomfortable for the one billion living on less than a dollar a day.

As for my friend, I told her to go to India as it may change her perspective on poverty and it’s a fabulous country for so many other reasons. As for me, clearly I’m no Mother Teresa but expat life has at least made me a little more mindful. I’m grateful for those who really make a difference, and grateful that expat life at least makes me uncomfortable enough to care.

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