Ours is a society that thrives on the unequal distribution of wealth
When Cyclone Amphan was sweeping across southern Bangladesh, I got a phone call from Shuborna (name changed to preserve identity) apa. She said her landlord had demanded Tk5,000 of her last few months’ rent and that if she didn’t pay by noon, she would be homeless.
Shuborna used to work at our apartment building decades ago, and now works as a part-time house-help in her village. My building’s owners’ committee recently reconnected with her and she kept our phone numbers.
I sent her some money and told others who wished to support her. This wasn’t the first time she had received financial assistance from us.
Sums have been pooled multiple times, for example, when her bag containing Tk30,000 was stolen at a bus terminal. She said her son had leukemia and she came to Dhaka to buy treatment.
Not too long ago, she called to say her son passed away, and requested some money as the lockdowns meant she was out of work.
I contemplated whether supporting her on a regular basis was feasible, while someone said that she had been repeatedly lying about the severity of her situation. We had only known her for some months, but people were wondering: Has she been making up harrowing stories to extort us for money?
This anecdote can easily feed into the narrative that people of a particular economic situation are out to extort money. Similar to the belief that beggars on the streets aren’t really homeless.
A different narrative is that poor people, like Shuborna, live in inescapable poverty. Poverty that does not allow one to build a life with a sense of dignity in living it, and one that crumbles in a cyclone, or a loan.
This narrative tells us that Shuborna was most likely not able to pay last month’s rent in full. The current crisis means she has no job, and both Shuborna and her landlord needed money.
It tells us that people beg on the streets of Dhaka because they likely came to the capital looking for jobs that never happened, or because river erosion washed away their homes.
The lying poor
Let us follow the first narrative: Shuborna had been lying to anyone she knows of similar socioeconomic backgrounds as most of us who are currently reading this article, out of whom some gave her what they could.
It indicates that she is conniving. She may also be lazy -- if enough people are sending her cash by taking pity on her, she would not even have to work. This understanding feeds the belief that the “poor are poor because they are lazy.”
It is what makes us ask an able-bodied person begging if they would work for money.
It is what makes us assume that they would commit crimes instead of working -- an easy justification to criminalize the poor.
It is easy to not believe a poor person when they say they are consistently in situations where they need more money. Almost as if the lack of money has something to do with the credibility of what they say.
If we assume that the importance of a person’s words is directly proportional to the power they hold, then it doesn’t matter what you say if you are powerless (read: Poor).
The Black Lives Matter movement is an example of this, where we see how black people are rendered powerless. Their voices have not mattered in white America and will be choked out of them on the whims of white policemen.
What makes the poor, poor?
If you are living in poverty, you find ways to work around the system. For example, by lying to people to receive their charity, or forcing them to give you their money. You survive -- but you don’t thrive, because you are still poor.
And very rarely are you able to lift yourself out of poverty. Shuborna apa, at the end of the day, was still, very evidently, poor. She could have received donations from all of us, but it would not have been enough to sustain her long term.
So, what do we do about this free-rider problem, customized to accommodate our pity and unequal distribution of wealth -- do we stop giving charity altogether? It is worth noting that Covid-19 has pushed thousands in Bangladesh into extreme poverty, and cash grants have been excellent in supporting millions of people. Thing is, unlike the one-off incident of what some would say my “naivete being taken advantage of,” what causes such incidents is structural.
Someone barely has anything to scrape by with, and will use whatever means they can to get what they can, and then maybe some.
But why do they have nothing in the first place?
Ours is a society that thrives on the unequal distribution of wealth. Some people have only a day’s worth of food, while others fly in family helicopters. The pandemic we are in has made this more evident than ever -- but it is nothing new.
It is a problem passed down from our colonizers, from maybe even before then, and to correct a system that has survived for so long would need time. And it has to start with enough people believing that this is a world they cannot flourish in and do not want to see. America, it seems, has only begun that process.
But maybe inequity is akin to the oneness of the world. Just like how much of the wealth of the powers-that-be in Bangladesh has been built on the backs of RMG workers (and freedom fighters) working for a better life, much of the powers of CEOs in America are built on the backs of the people who have migrated from places like Bangladesh, in search of a better life. Is there no escaping the imbalanced scale?
As I write this, I can’t help but ask what scars our conscience more: That someone is lying to us in exchange for a small sum of money, or that they are subjected to live in situations that allow for such deep disparities and financial insecurities which in turn compel them to resort to lies and extortion?
I am not sure what the best course of action is for Shuborna. If you were in my place, would you believe her? Or would you see her as just another liar to be ignored?
Luba Khalili works in the development sector in Bangladesh.