The Iguazú Falls

The View From Here

22nd January 2010

In our last issue, Mary Longhurst wrote about the demands that Corporate Social Responsibility makes on big business worldwide. Now Phil Wall reflects on how travel, as well as broadening the mind, presents unexpected philosophical questions about personal social responsibility – in the form of ethical dilemmas that demand instant decisions…

It’s very easy nowadays to travel to countries where much of the population are many times poorer than we are. For me this always raises the question of whether to give money to beggars. The authorities in most developing countries discourage giving to children especially, as it can keep them out of school. But when they’re face to face with you, it doesn’t always seem so simple.

In Argentina I visited Puerto Iguazú, a dusty red-earthed town stuck in the top right hand corner of the country, about as close to both Brazil and Paraguay as it could be without needing a passport. Tourists use its tree-lined streets as the base for visits to the famous Iguazú Falls a few miles east. A short walk out of town to the west is the junction of the Paraná and Iguazú rivers. Ahead, across the Paraná, is Paraguay; to the right, across the Iguazú, is Brazil. Each country has an obelisk to mark the end of its territory. If you spend more than two minutes examining the Argentine version – 20 feet of concrete like a stretched pyramid, painted in the national colours of blue and white and flanked by souvenir stalls – at least half a dozen small children will materialise, offering hand-made sugar-coated pastries and doughnuts from plastic tubs.

I had just come over the border from Brazil, hadn’t changed any money, and I wasn’t even particularly hungry… but my plea of “No tengo dineros Argentinas” did not discourage them. “Dollar!” they chorused. They gave the impression it might have been the first word they ever learned. I took my wallet out of my pocket. The confirmation that I had money – any money – made them redouble their efforts. Looking in my wallet, I inadvertertently revealed a Brazilian 1 Real note while pointing to the pastries and asking, ‘Cuánto?’; unsurprisingly, they all replied, ‘Uno Real.’ I chose a pastry and paid the girl whose box I’d taken it from, which only made the others even more determined. They thrust their wares at me from a height of three feet. ‘No mas’, I said. No more. It made no difference.

To distract them I held up my disposable camera and asked the girl I’d bought from if I could take her picture. She posed, smiling unselfconsciously, proudly holding her pastries in front of her. Some of the others crowded round too. They didn’t ask for payment for this; perhaps they see themselves as goods sellers only.

As long as I was still there they all held out hope of a sale. But as I started to leave some become more pleading. Suddenly they were begging rather than offering a trade. One girl in particular was very insistent, following me down the road, pleading and almost crying as we went.

Then the moral difficulty began. For a minute I really didn’t know what to do. Was it an act? Should I encourage begging by giving in to it? Is it even right to encourage their trade in pastries when they should be at school? If people like me didn’t buy from them would their parents think ‘There’s no money in this, we may as well send them to school’? Or would the children be out for longer hours, or have a worse job, or would they just go hungry?

Argentina is not amongst the poorest countries in the world, but still some children have to work to support themselves and their families. Compare this with our own history: until the late nineteenth century it was common for children to work in Europe. In England, 150 years ago, about 37 per cent of boys aged ten to 14 worked full time – which in those days was often 60 hours a week. The reason was simple: most people were very poor – about as poor as many in the third world are today. Now in Africa under 30 per cent face the same conditions; in India and Latin America far fewer.

So child labour is gradually decreasing, as it has been in even the third world for over half a century, but it’s not fast enough for many of us. It’s easy – and free – for those in rich countries to pontificate. Whether it’s a relatively small moral dilemma such as giving a few pesos to an Argentine child, or petitioning multi-national companies about their ‘ethical’ policies, we like to judge. The stark fact is that third world parents would almost always prefer to send their children to school rather than to work. When the choice is work more or eat less, is it up to interfering foreigners to tell them what to do?

There is one big difference between our own history and the current situation in the third world: when Europe and America were poor, there was no one to help. Now others are poor, we’re rich enough to do something about it. Whether or not you believe that we’re morally obliged to alleviate poverty abroad, it surely doesn’t do any good to make decisions for the poor by, for example, campaigning to close sweatshops owned by Western companies. Without work and trade, whether from factories or selling homemade goods on the street, the poor will only get poorer. If we campaign for anything it should be higher wages. If families had enough to live on now, they probably wouldn’t be sending their children to work.

If we, the world’s rich, really wanted to solve the problem of poverty we would be giving from our own resources to build infrastructure, improve agriculture, provide power and clean water, and generally even things up a bit. That would impact on us rather more than the donations we currently make, though, so, despite the best efforts of many dedicated individuals, as a society we don’t do it. Perhaps a certain spiritual poverty goes with material riches.

The world is inherently unfair. I am fortunate enough to have been born in a country and at a time that clearly makes me luckier than most. That’s why I did, in the end, give money to that small girl in Argentina. Because she asked me, and because I could.

Should I have refused?

Find Your Local