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Dignity in Receiving Aid in times of COVID–19

“Food relief will be our top priority.”

“We will be handing over the following food items that should be enough for a family of 4-5 people for two weeks in rural India.”

In the aid industry there are supporters of “Cash as Aid” who believe it’s the most effective & sustainable way to help those in need. Most importantly it is the dignified way of helping. But often, this also comes with strings attached. Strings like, the need of being documented, registered or becoming a subject of monitoring.

In the most altruistic sense, when you see a person in need, you would just hand over cash to the person in need and walk away, without the need to take a picture or demand anything in return.

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Much of rural Indians and the urban poor are affected not so much by the virus itself, but an ongoing humanitarian crisis of being out job work that pays. The world as they know has shut down, many couldn’t go back to their loved ones, many are stuck without money or work. Therefore, leading to a lot of humanitarian and solidarity initiatives to help them. You see pictures of dry ration items being handed in bags to people standing in a queue maintaining social distancing.

Speaking to someone working close in this area over phone, I heard a story that brought me some joy.

“You work and contribute to our society in normal times. Why do you want to leave thinking that you are not part of our society in these tough times? You are our guests. You should feel like home. Please stay here, we will take care of you and your needs.”

Help was arranged, someone from this specific community was chosen to decide what food has to be cooked because their food and cooking was different from the local population. Money was given to the cooks to buy the appropriate grocery suitable to their liking and their style of cooking. Mobile phones were topped with credits so that they can keep in touch with their family members and other needs to make them feel like home was provided and arranged for.

I have removed all specific details from this story so that the focus is on the action, the words and the idea of how help is supposed to be given.

Of course this is specific to the migrant labours who work on daily tasks to earn a living and send money back to their family. To provide little more nuanced detail about many of such people one needs to understand that these are people for whom their family is the only set of people that matter for them in life. Their whole life is spent earning a wage enough for them to feed themselves and their family back home. They do not have any other goal or purpose in life. They spend most of their lives doing this wishing for a better future for their kids. Many of those kids end up doing the same job like their parents and that dream of a better life never gets accomplished.

I spoke to a kid who I know since he was 14, he was in a school at the time and it was a school meeting. Now the boy is all grown up and maybe around 18 and I spoke to him asking about the situation back in his village. He somehow texted me asking that if I can find him a job a few weeks before this crisis. He had sent me his school passing grade-sheet because he was proud to have scored “first division”. At the time it didn’t make sense to me on his future plans. He told me, he is looking for some manual labour work in a city somewhere in <Delhi> where his elder brother works. I asked what does his brother do? He hesitated and after a lot of talking around the topic, he said, “he lifts things in the storage in some factory” and was proud that he had bought him a smartphone as a gift for his good grades. The only smartphone in the family also acted as the primary means of communication and information in the family where his father was handicapped and incapable of doing manual work. Now listening to his future plans, it was clear according to him that there is no other option but to work. Study is no longer an option. In true honesty, I did give him a lecture on “work hard”, “don’t be a coward” and all the blah blah that originates from privilege and lack of empathy or reacting from your own point of view. Later realising, I am almost dehumanising the kid and probably imposing my own analysis of a situation that is not affecting me directly in any way. I was just intellectually uncomfortable, as his circumstance and situation didn’t make sense to me. But it was not about me.

This was before the crisis.

After the crisis, him and his friends are clueless on what the future holds. He lives with his mother and father. His elder brother is stuck in Delhi without any work or money. I will probably call him again in the coming days to see what has happened since we last spoke. With a salary of 8-10000 rupees, the person had to care for a family of 2 elderly and 1 kid. I am still assuming that his elder brother is not married. This call was not planned to be a story that I would write about and I wouldn’t ask any personal details so I didn’t.

Let’s go back to the nature of aid and help that needs to be dignified.

It requires, basic agency and autonomy without someone else deciding what is good for you. Many of those who are seen as receiving help in the current situation are not helpless or dying. They just need to survive this. Unless you have a scarcity of food or there is no access to a grocery store that is still selling food, it is possible for people to go and get food. So why not just give them money?

Assuming that is not possible or easy to arrange, let’s look at the example above, where the cook was arranged from within the community and the food choice of the recipients was decided by themselves. It’s obvious this is a very dignified way of providing help. They decide, what they like to eat, they go and buy it. They feel like a normal human being with dignity. No-one likes to receive help that they do not like, even when they are in a desperate situation. It’s almost like poor and desperate people attract all kinds of attention from people who need attention themselves. I see people who like to help and be seen as helping other people as a special kind of greedy devil. But that’s just me and my problem.

I feel even when there is no possibility of giving cash or help in the right way, if the effort does not start with the question “What do you need right now?” then efforts of help lose soul and become an activity of book keeping. Most of the time people giving the food items, would not eat it themselves. We will get picky or just not like to receive something that we are not familiar with. So when someone says, “We are here to offer help. We would like to prioritise the help to you by giving you food.” And they do not ask you what kind of food, and just send you a pre-packaged list of stuff they think is necessary for survival without asking you what you actually eat, do you have any health conditions where what you eat can affect your well-being, or any other random detail.. it sounds like a wrong way. Instead giving cash is easier and the person can decide what to buy with it.

If you think giving cash will encourage people to go buy something useless or spending it on buying alcohol to get drunk ad have trust issues, then you shouldn’t be in the business of aid. Or maybe you should, its a business after all. The business of help. Altruism does not doubt. It trusts and is rooted in faith. Business doubts.

Imagine that you walk up to someone in need and give this bag of food relief item and they reject by saying, “No. I don’t want your help.”

I know some people who replied saying, “Why are they so ungrateful?” what about you?

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