On Sunday, New York Times columnist Nick Kristof had some pretty provocative things to say regarding “the world’s” (or, more realistically given the actual scope of the column, the Congolese) poor spend their money. To be fair, Kristof is not pulling things out of thin air. These ideas about the spending habits of the poor (and particularly of poor men) have been circulating for a while amongst development circles.
But does that mean that they are so black and white? William Easterly and Laura Frechi argue quite compellingly that there are larger social issues at play here. It’s not that parents think their kids aren’t “worth” the cost of a mosquito net, or that cell phones are a symbolic luxury item. Rather, it’s that there are more complex social forces at play, which we in the West refuse to take into account.
Living in Cato Manor for the past few days, I’ve noticed that nearly all of the families are headed by women, and men figure very infrequently into this landscape, unless one walks into a shebeen. But this not because the men are all irresponsible drunks. Rather, the men in Cato are generally migrant workers that cannot live close to their families. They frequent the shebeens at night both for recreation and for a social human interaction. I don’t blame them. In their situation, I’d be hard-pressed to say I wouldn’t do the same for some human connection. So where does this leave the mamas? In front of the TVs that blare all day long, in spite of the families’ tiny operating budgets. Everyone in Cato watches the soapies and they form a framework for conversation and connections amongst the mamas in Cato, not to mention some much-needed diversion after long days of work.
Although I agree with Kristof that poor folks sometimes spend unwisely, I can’t help but notice that we all do. It is only the poor that are so heavily penalized. Who are we to condemn the dust in their eyes before removing the plank from our own?