I flew business class to Lagos for a meeting on providing family planning to poor women in Nigeria. When I landed I was met by a SUV that drove me past the market ladies, the peanut hawkers, the foot-ball-playing boys, and the five-year-old girl begging in the road, traffic roaring inches from her bare toes. It is obscene, the gap between my world and hers. Between her toes and my son’s toes. And yet here I am – with forty of my colleagues – in a hotel that costs more per night than a poor woman in Lagos will earn in a month.
Welcome to the conscience of a conflicted international development worker.
This isn’t an issue of “wealthy America” and “poor Nigeria”. There is enormous wealth in Nigeria, as I can see all around me in this fancy hotel full of well dressed, well educated, well travelled Nigerians attending conferences, workshops, church services, and expos in air conditioned halls. Just as in the U.S., here in Nigeria there is an enormous gap between the haves and have-nots (or between the have-too-muches and the have-not-enoughs), and my colleagues and I are all clearly “haves.” What gets me is not that I am an American working in Nigeria, but that I am a human with wealth working in a world of humans without it.
Is it hypocrisy to work for equality (which I believe we do when we improve the health of the poor; there is no more dramatic illustration of inequality than the rich/poor gap in maternal mortality) while also benefiting personally from inequality? Maybe I should stay in a cheaper hotel, fly economy, pass up food that is so expensive the people serving it can’t afford to buy it for their own families. Or maybe I shouldn’t do this work, because I know I walk the line between promoting equality and benefiting from inequality, and I find that morally problematic. I see the wheels of my SUV inches from the toes of the beggar girl and I gag.
I have arguments to justify what I do. I eat the pricey food to prevent food-borne illness, I stay in the fancy hotel because it has security in an insecure place, I fly business at the recommendation of my doctor. Convenient, isn’t it though, that each of these things are more comfortable than the alternative? I also do these things because this is what is done in the business, what people expect when they show up at a workshop, and for largely the same reasons – health, safety, enough comfort to get the job done.
My reading on this trip included a book called Uneasy Street, a study of wealthy mothers in New York City and their troubled relationship with their own wealth and privilege. The author writes about them with academic restraint – a thing I would not be able to do, given the inability of most of her subjects to acknowledge they are wildly wealthy and privileged. She writes that while some of the people she profiles fret about whether they are spending too much and donating too little, they don’t, generally, have much desire to challenge the very nature of inequality, to work for a world where the gap between their children and other people’s children narrows.
Clearly I am still conflicted, and I’ll probably stay conflicted as long as I do this work. I want to think that my work makes a difference to inequality, that I am doing the right thing. But wanting doesn’t make it so, and acknowledging inequality doesn’t erase it. It remains, like the image of those toes so close to my wheels.