Can’t shake that abstract feeling?

Can’t shake that abstract feeling?

US $3 for a mosquito net, US $35 for eye surgery, AU$20 for vegetable seeds for a family in Timor-Leste – we've all seen the examples many charities provide of how little it takes to help someone. The aim is to make the impact your money can have more tangible, but it's still always felt a bit abstract to me. Maybe because extreme poverty was something happening far away; maybe because it's hard to feel emotionally attached to a mosquito net unless you urgently need one; maybe because these amounts felt like just a number – I couldn't feel the difference it made. I gave anyway, but my decision was more based on an intellectual understanding of our obligations towards the poor rather than an emotional understanding of the difference a few dollars can make.

Boy who can see againPhoto Credit: Fred Hollows Foundation

Now, clearly these numbers work for a lot of people or aid organisations wouldn't break them down like that. When I was doing a donation run amongst friends and family last year, my mother for example decided to give US $40 because she'd seen on the organisation's website that it would pay for a bicycle.

But if, like me, you're one of those people who find it hard to relate to these numbers on an emotional level, here's a little story about what finally did it for me – and some suggestions as to what might do it for you as well.

An abstraction becomes real

Last year, I travelled to Cambodia to finally see the great Angkor Wat. Before we left, I did a Google search to find out how much I should tip in Cambodia. I discovered that tipping isn't customary and that the average salary is about US $65 – per month. When we got to Siem Reap, my suitcase was missing. A friendly and competent airport employee took down my details and told me my luggage would be on the same flight the next day. He then proceeded to hand over an airline compensation of US $100 in cash.

There I stood, reaching for a US $100 note given to me by a man who most likely made less than that for a whole month of what was clearly good, conscientious work. I was receiving close to twice the average monthly income because my suitcase was delayed by 24 hours. It was absurd. It felt unreal. I was in shock.

I ended up taking the money because I didn't see what else I could do: I wasn't sure whether it might cause problems for him if I tried to give him the money to keep. It may also have been culturally inappropriate or even insulting to just hand over a sum like that.

Inwardly, I vowed to donate the money – a decision reinforced over the next few days as we were faced with how much that amount of money would mean to most Cambodians we encountered. I'm aware that US $100 is not nothing to the average Westerner, and certainly not to poor people in our rich countries. At the same time, $100 can be gone so quickly – a new pair of pants, a nice dinner, a concert ticket, a phone bill… and in Cambodia, it meant more than a month of work.


Making so little

We continued to see many more examples of people working hard for very little money: Many families collect used plastic bottles for recycling. They wash them and then let them dry in the sun outside their homes. Eventually, they will make U$1 for every 400 bottles fit for recycling. At tourist spots, you see children selling 10 postcards for a ridiculously low-seeming U$1 – and yet families often decide to keep their children out of school precisely so that they can work for these small sums. Others clean dishes at the traditionally large Cambodian weddings with 800 guests or more, making a meagre U$40 per month – and only during the wedding season.

Having been handed that U$100 note for a minor inconvenience and seeing just how much hard work goes into every dollar people have, and how hard they work to improve their lives and lift up their country, finally provided that connection to reality I had been missing. I finally understood that five dollars, three dollars, even just one dollar do matter. That sum can mean the difference between having to collect and clean 400 bottles and the opportunity to send a child to school.


So what can you do?

Woman in front of her homePhoto Credit: OxfamAU

So what can you do to finally “get” it? How do you make the difference a small sum can make feel real to you?

Keep your eyes open when travelling

I'm certainly not suggesting that you indulge in “poverty tourism” and go somewhere just to see how poor people are. However, many of us do travel to countries where people live in poverty, so you might as well keep your eyes open while you're there. Take a look around, read up on things like school attendance rates, average salaries and working conditions, and ask your tour guide about these issues.

Talk to a friend who's been there

If you're not going yourself, maybe you have a friend who's travelled to a developing country or is about to go there. Maybe you know someone who has worked there or even participated in aid projects, like my fellow blogger Angie. Ask them about their observations and experiences.


See a documentary, watch a movie or attend a talk

There are lots of opportunities out there to learn more about what it means to be poor, what living in poverty looks like, and the daily struggles of those who live in extreme poverty. Choose a documentary such as Good Morning Africa or a film like The Constant Gardener, Tsotsi or The First Grader which all depict life in developing countries from different angles.

There's also a great range of TED talks about poverty and what you can do about it. Or maybe there's a talk in your area by someone who's visited a developing country – it could be just a travel talk, or it could be someone who was involved in poverty relief work. At any rate, it's worth asking them about their experiences!


Read personal stories

Man in front of his home
Photo Credit: GiveDirectly

Instead of looking at the “abstract” lists of how many school books, mosquito nets or wells your money can buy, read personal stories of how much of a difference a little bit of money can make. These can be autobiographies or novels, or simply stories posted by aid organisations about the lives of the people they help such as Oxfam or Fred Hollows.

A great resource, in particular if you're pressed for time, is GiveDirectly.
GiveDirectly posts a randomly selected cash transfer recipient on their Facebook page every week. It's not very in-depth, but it provides a direct, unadulterated, unprettified glimpse at the difference your money can make. GiveDirectly chooses their stories randomly to avoid narrative bias, and their weekly anecdotes can help give you an idea of the actual reality of people's lives.


Choose a charity you can personally connect to

Fistula surgeion Dr Mulu Muleta
Photo Credit: Fistula Foundation

Paradoxically, we know that it's harder for humans to care on a personal level when a conflict affects many people rather than just one identifiable individual; we prefer the feeling that we can help one specific person over helping a more anonymous group of people. It doesn't make sense logically, but it seems to be the way we're hardwired. So if clean water, food fortification or deworming campaigns seem too abstract to you because they involve too many people, choose something more personal such as the Fistula Foundation or Seva.


Try the The Life You Can Save Impact Calculator

If you have a hard time choosing between charities or would just like to see the different ways your money can help, try the brand new The Life You Can Save Impact Calculator. It lets you enter the amount of money you'd like to give and then shows you what that will get you with each of our recommended charities. This way, you can compare the impact your money is having, and you can select something that speaks to you personally.


Share your story in our “Supporters' Stories” section

Last but not least, share your personal story about giving in our “Supporters' Stories” section – it will help others see the range of ways people think about poverty, about what it means to them emotionally and how it has influenced their giving choices. Tell us whether there was a point at which the difference a few dollars can make became real to you, what it was that did it for you and what difference it has made to your giving choices!

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About the author:

Elisabeth Meister

Elisabeth Meister is a Sydney-based freelance translator with an MA in History and Linguistics and years of experience in intercultural communication. She loves travelling, chocolate, theatre and books, though not necessarily in that order. Peter Singer's works have had a great influence on her life, and she's excited to be on board as a blogger for The Life You Can Save.

The views expressed in blog posts are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Peter Singer or The Life You Can Save.