On a breezy Tuesday night on the riverside of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, I met up with a Cambodian friend for dinner. As we sat at our street-side table enjoying an elaborate and ridiculously cheap meal, a small, dirty girl carrying a fistful of long-stemmed roses walked up to me, reached out her hand palm-up, and looked up at me with her best sad face.
I immediately said my token, “No thank you, I’m sorry,” and averted my eyes. To my astonishment, however, my Cambodian friend pulled 500 riel (USD $0.13) out of his pocket, picked out a rose, and sent the little girl on her way.
As an aid worker, I was enraged. “How can you support that lifestyle?” I gasped. “Don’t you know the conditions they live under? You just allowed that little girl’s enslavement!” He just rolled his eyes, shrugged a little, and said, “Well, maybe she needs it to go to school.”
I wasn’t sure how to respond. Instead, I had a flashback to a political economy class that I took during my undergraduate studies, when my professor told me whether or not I voted in the next election really didn’t matter (shout-out to Professor Jasper LiCalzi at The College of Idaho).
According to political analyst Kenneth Shepsle, the best motivating factor to get people to vote is to make the act personally, symbolically meaningful. Why do you vote, if you vote at all? Most people choose to vote for the symbolism, but few people vote for the actual effects of their vote. A rational person knows that their single vote won’t change the election, even in a more democratic country. Instead, people want to vote for the symbolism.
I always immediately want to refute Shepsle’s point by saying, “But if everyone thought that their vote didn’t matter, then no one would vote at all!” Unfortunately, that’s probably part of the reason why only about 60% of Americans voted in the last presidential election. In Cambodia, many people do not vote because they know that the outcome will be the same no matter what. They are focused on the effects of the act of voting, not the symbolism. Maybe if the symbol was more important, more people would vote.
I keep comparing this idea with the issue of buying things from kids. Most foreigners I know refuse to buy things from children for the mere symbolism of supporting child labour, but maybe, unlike voting, the effects are actually more important.
For those of you that have already lived or traveled in countries like Cambodia, you may have encountered kids in tattered clothes, walking the streets at night, carrying knick-knacks in overloaded baskets. A simple walk leads to encounters with eight-year-olds selling books, bracelets, or flowers. Lounging on the beach is inevitably mixed with kids trying to paint your nails, thread your hair, sell you fruit, etc.
Even the simple act of stopping at a stoplight cannot be enjoyed without children peddling decorative, fragrant jasmine flowers for 13 cents each. I’ve seen a seven-year-old girl beaten up by a 17-year-old boy for trying to sell books inside his restaurant. A five-year-old jasmine flower seller stole 500 riel right out of my pocket while I was sitting on my moto at a stoplight. I’ve had long conversations with 12-year-old girls with no parents as they braided my hair and tried to convince me to give them three dollars. A young boy once asked me to give him eight dollars in exchange for a bottle of water so he could pay for a month’s worth of schooling. Persistent, entrepreneurial kids are selling stuff everywhere.
The first time I came to a poor country, I read some books beforehand that talked about horrible things, like adults taking in orphans and employing them as slave-peddlers, taking all of the money for themselves, or wealthy or middle class parents who refuse to send their children to school and employ them instead.
Similar stuff to what you may have seen in the movie Slumdog Millionaire. After reading about all of the problems associated with child labour, I stopped buying things from kids for the symbolism, refusing to support these horrible adults’ acts.
But my friend’s comment got me to start thinking about the effects of my imposing morality. Even if I don’t buy, and continue to theoretically oppose child labor, it still continues and the kid remains sad and hungry. If I buy, maybe they’ll have some food to eat, maybe to go to school. Then again, maybe it will go to their alcoholic father.
As Shepsle and my professor recognised, the symbolic act of voting only affects the citizen and their romantic, patriotic feelings about participating in democracy. One unused ballot doesn’t determine whether or not the candidate of choice gets elected. But children peddlers are real and raw. Their face is in your face, their bony, dirty hands clutching huge baskets that are far too heavy for them to carry.
So now, sometimes, I buy stuff from kids. Maybe by the end of my time in Cambodia I’ll have two wrists full of bracelets, and I can think about each bracelet, each child, and hope that I lightened the load of their burdensome baskets. Maybe I can even help send one of them to school.
I do not claim to know the solution, but the right answer is much grayer than many of us recognise. I do think it’s important that we think about each situation on a case-by-case basis, using our best judgment. What is most important is that we think about it, instead of immediately imposing our aid worker ideals on irrelevant situations. Here are some pros and cons of buying stuff from kids to mull over:
- Pro: The kid smiles and probably even gets excited.
- Con: The happiness, though perhaps genuine, is fleeting.
- Pro: The kid has some money, maybe to go to school, maybe to eat. Education and food are good things.
- Con: Maybe not. You’ll never know where the money goes.
- Pro: It creates a positive interaction between you and another person that would not have happened otherwise.
- Con: You still don’t know where the money is going, a factor which may be dependent on whether or not the interaction can count as positive.
…or not to buy:
- Pro: You’re symbolically telling the kid that you do not promote his work activities.
- Con: The kid keeps working anyway, and so do all of the other kids. Your high-falutin message goes unheeded.
- Pro: You save money. You can’t rescue all of the street kids by buying all of the bracelets in Cambodia.
- Con: But maybe you can feed one? Also, you miss out on buying some nice-smelling flowers or pretty bracelets, which you may have wanted anyway.
- Pro: It’s easier to forget about the kid if you avoid eye contact.
- Con: You have a negative interaction with the child, or pass up on having any interaction at all.
What do you think? Do you buy stuff from kids on the streets? Let us know in the comments.
Update 22nd October
DevEconHealth responds to this post with a thoughtful and challenging post about the economics of buying from children. You can read it here.