On Poverty and Generosity

It feels cliché to say that the Nicaraguans I have encountered have been extremely generous and warm people. I and many fellow Peace Corps volunteers often comment on how Nicaraguans would likely not be as welcomed in the US as we feel here. Since moving into my own house I have been lent dishes, furniture, and small appliances and and I am constantly invited to eat with other families or simply given food outright. At first this kind of generosity made me uncomfortable because I was unable to reciprocate and didn’t know what the cultural and social expectations were of me. With time I have become more comfortable and have found ways to give to others and return favors. Still, this outpouring of support from people who live in dirt-floor homes, cannot afford even a bicycle, and work long, hard days in the fields to bring home rice and beans is an overwhelming experience and it causes many volunteers to declare the US a selfish country and the Nicaraguans as a morally superior culture. I can understand the impulse to feel this kind of adoration for the generosity of poor societies, but a book I read in a class on developmental economics has made me wonder if perhaps the comparison is more complex than it seems. The book is titled ‘The Moral Economy of the Peasant,’ and it suggests a functional reason for generosity. If a rural and poor group is generous and redistributes its resources, it will be more likely to survive bad harvests and other supply shocks. Thus, people are not generous because they are more altruistic, they are generous because if they give when they have a surplus then they can receive when they have a shortfall. Necessity breeds generosity in groups with few resources.

This perspective on altruism and generosity is decidedly less romantic, but I tend to favor explanations that give the ‘why’ and that do not uncritically judge something to be better than its alternatives. Using this explanation of generosity we can view many cultural peculiarities in a new way. For instance, Nicaraguan birthday parties and especially quinceaños parties involve great costs to the hosting families, who often prepare food for all the invitees and their families, pass out gift bags, and buy a piñata. My perception is that there is a large net loss in most birthday parties here, and it may be part of a spreading of resources among families. Wealthy families are expected to give much more than families of scarce means during these events. The December purisimas celebrations are another example of families distributing food and gifts to the whole community.

There are also norms of behavior that support this value system by excluding or stigmatizing those who display wealth or accumulate more than is socially acceptable. I hear people speak poorly of a single man in my community who has been working and saving his money to build a house and buy a motorcycle for himself but has not yet found a wife and started a family to spread the money around. A regular adjective used to describe anything that is expensive or flashy is ‘fachenta’ which means ‘show-offy’ or ‘snobby.’ If you decide not to buy food from every walking vendor or products from friends selling Avon, then you may acquire a reputation as ‘pinche’ or ‘stingy.’ These social norms train children from birth to value sharing and to suspect stingy behavior as well as maintain generous behavior with social rewards and punishments.

Contrast this with US culture, which is more focused on individual achievement and conspicuous consumption. We are infamous for our every-man-for-himself approach, our shallow materialism, and our weak social security system. We are one of the few rich countries not to ensure that everyone has adequate healthcare (Even Nicaragua, one of the poorest countries in the world, has universal healthcare). There is currently a resurgence of political and economic thought about shrinking even more the extent to which we band together as a society to take care of those who have less resources. Many of our social norms are sold to us through commercials and television shows and we value rags-to-riches stories and owning cars and iPhones more than we value hosting community events to support those in need (that’s not to say that there is no materialism here; in fact, kids here want computers and Blackberries just as much as kids in the US and television is a central family activity here too.)

I’m not interested in making this into a political opinion piece, howerver. In fact, having seen some of the drawbacks of the Nicaraguan context, I have more respect for the tendency to expect each person to earn what they receive rather than being given it. In the US we have an incredible entrepreneurial spirit, a can-do attitude, a thirst for knowledge and self-improvement, and a drive for innovation that are rare here in Nicaragua. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to connect norms of redistribution to a tendency not to work as hard to accumulate wealth. At times it feels like a balance between being heartless and being lazy, as the critics of each side claim, and maybe it is to some extent. But that doesn’t meant that US society is heartless and Nicaraguans are lazy, it means that each has strengths and weaknesses.

Obviously something as complex as cultural norms cannot be explained by economic environments alone. Nicaraguans are not generous simply because they need to be, nor are Americans stingy because they can be. Each country has a distinct historical legacy that has contributed to its values and to paint these values with broad strokes over heterogeneous individuals is unhelpful at best. So what am I trying to say?

I am often reminded of why so many Peace Corps volunteers ‘go native’ and have disdain for US culture because of the generosity and apparent selflessness of the people in my community. I admire them for this set of values, but I understand that it comes at a cost and that it does not make them morally superior to US culture. It makes them different from US culture. Many people may prefer a more humble, collective existence to the atomized and prosperous one that we have in the US, but not everyone does. We each have things to learn from each other, and I hope that living in this culture and society for two years will help me understand the best balance for myself.

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2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Janet Boddy on December 20, 2011 at 2:33 pm

    Dear Andrew, I like this post. I needed your ending paragraphs to make it more complete for me. For one thing, very few of us do “materialism” or “generosity” from conscious motives, so even if cultures of economics can be compared and contrasted, I would really wish to emphasize that individuals behave out of unconsciousness. It’s not to be used as an excuse, but an explanation. Also, in Friendship school district here the book by Ruby Payne “A Framework For Understanding [American] Poverty” seems to drive a lot of the administration and teacher thinking. However, I’m uncomfortable with too much reliance on such a framework for describing individuals who, in America, often come and go from poverty. And, using older statistics, I believe 75% of the people living in poverty here are the elderly, disabled, and children. It’s really to the generational power of poverty that enculturation into patterns of wealth use can be best applied, I think — maybe like in Nicaragua. Possibly, the US has more fluidity when it comes to gaining and losing wealth. Anyway… thanks for your thoughts. Love Ya!

    Reply

    • I agree. That’s why I tended to focus on the economic incentives that guide behavior and the cultural/historical context rather than explanations of conscious choice. How does that book by Ruby Payne shape the perspective in Friendship?

      Reply

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