While walking with my girlfriend on the dusty streets of Ensenada, Baja California I saw something that pulled at my gringo heart strings. There was a small Native American child, maybe 5 or 6 years old, selling small packs of gum for $5 pesos (about $0.25 USD). I said to my girlfriend “That’s so sad. Children should not be out working in the streets like that”. My girlfriend, a native born Mexican, replied somewhat callously “Well, children have to work too”.
I was shocked by her answer. In the US I had never seen children working in the streets. I am certain that it would be against the law to have a 5 year old working for you. To my girlfriend, however, it was not a big deal at all. It’s fairly common for children in third world countries to work. To her it was weird that I was so shocked by it because it’s such a normal part of life in Mexico.
I was curious so I began to research. How could this be normal in these countries and why isn’t the international community stepping up and putting a stop to it? Turns out they had tried in other countries like Bangladesh and, like most western interventions in other nations political and societal matters, it was a massive failure that only made things worse. For families living in poverty in the third world, their children’s labor is a major source of income. They depend on their child’s earnings to scrape by in their day to day lives. By not allowing children to work, families were going hungry and more children died as a result of not working.
The real tragedy is not that children have to work, that’s just normal in reality. The real tragedy is that acts of perceived altruism on the part of the west often make things worse. One example I heard from Stefan Molyneux is that charities in the west love to collect shoes for people in impoverished African nations. On the surface it seems like a good thing. What could possibly go wrong with giving shoes to people who don’t have them? A city is flooded with free shoes and suddenly the person who owns a shoe store in town can’t sell any shoes because he cannot compete with free. So he has to close his store and now he cant provide for his family.
What may come as a shock to someone living in a first world nation may be something perfectly normal in a third world country. What may seem like a solution or act of kindness to relieve the third world from the stress of poverty may only make things worse in the long run. Your “acts of kindness” could put someone out of business or cause a family to starve all because you wanted to feel good about yourself. Don’t think that just because something is shocking and different to you that it is something inherently bad. It may just be the way things work and there is nothing you can do to fix it.