Monday, November 15, 2004

Global focus on hunger

Oxfam at Brown hosted a hunger banquet last night. Participants were randomly sorted into three groups -- high income (15%), middle income (25%), and low income (60%). The high income group had pasta and salad and a really nice meal at a table. The middle income group had beans and rice, with plates and silverware and chairs. The low income group sat on the floor and ate rice with their hands. There was some good discussion that followed -- people seemed really moved by the inequality in the room, which obviously was designed to mirror that of the world. We had a speaker come in after the meal. Janet Cooper-Nelson's talk, I'm sorry to say, rubbed me a little wrongly. It's possible that I just misunderstood her, but she seemed to be saying something like this: When we think about miserable people in third-world countries who live on less than one dollar per day and walk five miles to work in the rain with no umbrella and cannot afford a second meal per day or medicine for their children, and brush their teeth with ashes and their fingers because they can't afford anything more appropriate, it's difficult to imagine being that unfortunate. We have a hard time conceiving of ourselves falling to that level. But there are unfortuanate people who are much closer to us, too. People in Rhode Island with college degrees get a few tough breaks and end up unable to pay rent. We can imagine that happening to us -- it really could happen to us. Therefore, we should focus our energy on being good friends and support systems for the people around us. They need help, and we can make their lives better. I think that's pretty bad reasoning. It's true, as a matter of psychological fact, that it's difficult for us to imagine being as poor as most of the people in the world are. Why does that matter? We understand the important part -- that these people are miserable, and that therefore, if we can help them, then we should. I just don't see that the failure of imagination on our part tells in any way against the importance of helping these people, unless we think that the reason we should help people depends on something about our own thoughts. Now I'm no Kantian, but in this case, he'd be *right* to have a fit at that suggestion. The reason I should help relieve suffering in Sudan has nothing to do with me or what I'm capable of imagining -- it has everything to do with millions of suffering people who need help. Obviously, there is suffering at home, too, and helping people is good, period. But I think that a speaker who is advising us to focus on those around us *instead of* those far away (many of whom are much, *much* worse off than almost anybody in Rhode Island) is acting irresponsibly, and sends the wrong message for a group like Oxfam. Especially at the conclusion of an event with clear international focus. Every participant was assigned a name and a story along with an income group. Almost all were non-American. The *point* of this event was to raise awareness of global inequality with respect to food. At least, that's what I thought the point was. I've discussed this via email with a couple of Oxfam members, and I plan to bring it up at our weekly meeting tomorrow. It turns out, the more I think about it, the more strongly I find myself feeling about it. I'm nervous about shaking up a really important group, but I think it's also important that we're on the same page as to what we stand for, etc.

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