A window on extreme poverty

In order to save enough money to send home, a neighbor guard would fast several days each month.

Jason Ketola

It would be relatively easy for me never to think about extreme poverty in my day-to-day life, if I weren’t getting at least weekly phone calls from some extremely poor people in Ghana, that is. At this time last year, I was studying abroad in Legon where the University of Ghana is, just 15 minutes or so from Accra, the capital. Having read ethics works like “Famine, Affluence, and Morality” by Peter Singer and having an interest in development, I made it my goal to understand poverty rather than spend my time traveling around West Africa.

To that end, I made friends with several dozen people in the neighborhoods near my house, which was situated between the large houses of well-to-do judges and a soccer player on one side and on the other side, several dozen dilapidated rental “rooms.” Most of my new friends captivated me. They could be found every day frying plantains or preparing jollof rice to sell, tailoring clothes with hand-powered sewing machines or guarding one of the large houses. In retrospect, most of these people probably had little experience with a white person giving them the time of day let alone sitting with them for hours on end sharing stories. I discovered many of my new friends had come to Accra seeking work. Their families were almost invariably engaged in subsistence farming in villages all over the country and were in need of some kind of money to buy clothes, occasional supplies and food when crops would fail.

With the exception of a few of the guards I knew, no one was salaried so it wasn’t hard to verify their economic situations. On a very good day, most of them would be lucky to earn 20,000 cedis, about $2. Between 10,000 and 15,000 cedis was more the norm. When we hear that nearly 3 billion people in the world are living off less than the purchasing power of $2 a day, two facts typically are lost on us. First, “purchasing power” means the worth of the currency has been standardized against the American dollar for comparison; typically, this means these people are earning much less, currency wise, than two physical dollars a day. Second, we tend to think of developing countries as being very “cheap” to live in. But it’s far from accurate to say $1 in Ghana is worth even $5 American.

To give you some sense of the money’s worth, a simple meal of rice, beans and fried plantains would cost about 6,000 cedis from a street vendor. By cramming several people into small rooms that can be rented for about $10 a month and by eating customary dishes prepared by neighbors, my friends could live on about 8,000 cedis a day, allowing them to save some money for their families. Of course food and residence hardly constitute a Ghanaian’s only expenses. As a neighbor guard informed me, in order to save 100,000 cedis a month to send home, he would fast several days each month.

I’m not blind to the fact that most of my friendships hardly could be called real. A white man who is privileged even by the standards of his own country can’t escape the power he has around these poor people. I don’t answer the calls I get from Ghana anymore. Just by picking up the phone, I could cost them half a day’s salary. I know my friends want to ask how I’m doing and occasionally ask for money, something I failed to anticipate in my ignorance. Communication barriers aside, I honestly don’t know how to explain to them my life here, and I’m uncomfortable sending money without any kind of oversight.

That doesn’t mean I’m comfortable with the extreme disparity or can wave it away by saying “God blessed me with what I have” or “I’ve earned it.” These statements don’t change the fact that hundreds of millions of people around the world go hungry when the weather doesn’t support their subsistence crops, or that in Ghana millions of people aren’t able to afford the “free schooling” and thus become illiterate.

Organizations like FINCA International (www.villagebanking.org), the Grameen Foundation USA (www.gfusa.org) and Oxfam International (www.oxfam.com) have instituted proven micro-lending programs to lift people from extreme poverty and empower families to take control of their lives. The loan repayment rates of these organizations are routinely better than any other lending bank in the United States or elsewhere, and loan recipients are able to use the capital to get education for their children, to make their houses safe and functional and to start businesses.

As I look to my own future, I wonder if helping people through programs like these will redeem me for not being willing to wire money to the Ghanaians who shared their lives with me. And I wonder if living a $40,000-a-year lifestyle after donating $10,000 of take-home pay is viable. I certainly live a much more frugal lifestyle now, and odds are, I’ll earn more than $50,000 per year, so I probably could do a lot better than that. With a little planning, most of us soon will have it within our means to help thousands of people each at very little expense to ourselves. We don’t need to wait for the government to do this work for us.

Jason Ketola welcomes comments at [email protected]