Thursday, April 2, 2009

meeting the locals and an opportunitiy to help

So last Sunday I was taking a bicycle ride around the quiet side of the mountain and came across a bit of a situation. Even in this small area there must be thousands of genuine situations of need as well as many scam artists out to milk gullible westerners for all they are worth.

So I rode past a small dwelling in a field off of a side road. A young girl called out to me if I want to buy any papaya or any coconut? I didn't then but on the way back I did so I popped in and the mother and daughter took me into the field to get some ripe fruits.

They were pretty friendly and the daughter spoke quite good English and she offered to give me Tamil lessons which is the native language in this state of India. Before long she started telling me a story of hardship and how she needs financial help with her college fees. In particular she had an exam tomorrow and needed to come up with 100 rupees ($2US) deposit on the exam fee or she wouldn't be able to sit it.

I said okay, I'll tell you what, I won't give you the money but I'll pay you 100 rupees in advance now for some conversational Tamil lessons. That worked out okay and I bought some fruit from them also. They tried to petition me for some more money, saying that she had had a foreign sponsor but that they had disappeared on her, but I left it at that and arranged to come back the next day for a Tamil lesson.

Next day after some lessons I got more of the story. There are four of them (grandma, mother, one teenage boy and the girl) living in one small dwelling the size of most peoples lounge room (not unusual in India). The father was an abusive drunk and has ran off leaving them to pay off the debt of money he borrowed from the land owner. So according to what they told me they are living as some kind of indentured servants to the land owner for very little money.

So, to cut a long story short, they are obviously looking to recruit some new comparatively wealthy foreign sponsorship to help the girl complete her studies which will then allow her to get a better paid job and to help her family. She is a nice girl and apparently a gifted pupil coming top of her class of 72 students in some exam.

On the one hand I was wary of being scammed by a plausible hard luck story and on the other hand if her case was genuine the amount of money she was talking about was not huge but could make a huge difference in this young lady and her families life.

After considering the matter I suggested that maybe I could help her to promote her own business giving Tamil lessons to foreigners which would help her to earn her own money and also to come in contact with more potential donors.

She also needs to pay off the remaining balance of 11,000 rupees (about $220US) for this current years study before June or she will not be allowed to commence her 3rd and final year of her Diploma in Electronics & Communication Engineering which can be funded more gradually by installments.

It does not seem feasible that they could raise that much money in two months without outside help. Wages are very very low here and it is the quiet time of year. Also they apparently have no assets or property to borrow against. I considered that $220US was quite a chunk for any one person to give her but that maybe if a bunch of people put in together then it would hardly be noticeable and yet would have a very big impact for her.

I told her that subject to certain conditions then myself and some friends overseas might be willing to help her. My conditions were that :

1) she provides some official documentation from the college to verify the balance owing
2) she arrange that I can meet with one of her teachers who can verify her academic and other details
3) if money is raised then I would not give it to her or her mother but would need to personally see it being paid directly to the college

I figured that if she is willing and able to meet these conditions then it would go along way to proving that her case is genuine and will ensure that the money went to the right place. She indicated this morning via mobile that she will organise it. Also I am going to meet with one retired scientist man who is an ex-neighbour and friend of the family who can perhaps help to substantiate the story and I have emailed the college to verify some of the general financial details.

I didn't want to be unnecessarily strict but there are too many stories of dishonest people making a profession out of scamming money from Westerners with all kinds of plausible yarns.

If all the details of her story check out as being genuine then I cannot really think of any good reason not to help her out. Generally I don't want to become involved in this type of thing as there is a seemingly unending ocean of disadvantaged people needing help in this world (especially in places like India) but I happened to become involved in this particular case and it seems that a little help would make a big difference in at least this one young persons life.

So while everything is being verified I would like to ask you all to consider if you might like to contribute something. I will certainly put in 10% of the $220US needed in the short term and perhaps if a few others feel to chip in as well then the target will easily be met without anyone of the givers really noticing such a modest amount. A little goes a long way in India and many small contributions help to fill the pot so even a couple of dollars or pounds will help.

I'll get back with further details as things unfold but if things work out then I envisage collecting contributions through any one of my NZ, AUS or UK bank accounts and I might be able to recruit a friend to do a similar thing in the US (and other countries as needed?).

Of course you would have to trust that I myself am not pulling an elaborate scam just so I can perpetuate the high life for myself!!!


  1. Nepal certainly has cases where foreigners sponsor kids who live in the mountains,to go to schools in the towns and citys. But that is almost always done through proper organizations that regulate how it all pans out. Unless you can do this through a regulating organization in India (or get confirmation through someone else, like you're doing), my suggestion is to be pretty wary in India with that sort of thing.

    Unfortunately there are (as you have heard) countless people in India amongst the very very good people, who have no hesitation whatsoever in stooping to the lowest levels and playing the most truly elaborate acting games over months or more, to siphon money out of westerners they befriend one way or another.

    One off one time rip offs of small amounts are easy to shrug off with a smile as a "live and learn" thing, but it's the long term and elaborate schemes that stick the knife in when you discover you've been played like a fiddle using the worst kind of emotional manipulation.

    Unfortunately, western ideas of honesty and meeting promises don't amount to a hill of Channa Dahl for many people in India, mostly amongst the less wealthy Hindus. Our family once knew someone who was an NGO working with people in refugee camps all over the world.

    Her comment after years of working with them is that there is often a very good reason why these people survive and others didn't. Anything goes. No limits. All options open. Survival of the fittest. Principles, be damned.

    With India being a zone where you find both the best and worst of humanity, I don't think it's unreasonable to be taking the caution you are.

    At the moment I'm still not in work and this country appears to be in real trouble as it is, so there is no chance of me helping out at the moment even if it all checks out as legitimate.

    Good luck though :D

  2. Hi Shiva,

    I think what you are doing is a very good thing. I've helped people out in the past and it has been very rewarding.

    However, I've discovered that it does not solve the "poverty consciousness" which is the real problem. I don't like using that term, but it sums it up.

    Although I don't have a fixed policy, I do go through a kind of "charity triage." There are those who cannot be helped, those who want the help but don't really need it right now and those who are ripe for helping.

    It is a subjective evaluation and it may seem harsh to deny help, but none of us has infinite resources in a world of endless needs.

    I once gave some money to a friend who wanted to visit his sick sister. He needed 400 euro and I gave him all I could afford: 55 euro. He was grateful, but at the same time disappointed because due to a misunderstanding he was expecting 400 from me. He tried to hide his disappointment, but I saw it and it made me very angry. I realised my ego was bruised because I was trying to buy a vain feeling of generosity and didn't get it. :-(

    Also, I heard the comment: people always get by, even if they're living in the gutter. So I reserve my contributions for truly calamitous situations - and they're a lot rarer than situations that just challenge people's egos and the choices they make between wants and needs.

    This conflict reminds me of Arjuna's situation of having to kill his family and friends on the battlefield. Hard decisions which Sri Krishna gives perspective to.


  3. I would seek advice from Aid Agency's and the local Chief etc. You might find your self doing a runner or even worse soon.
    I know that that some whole villages were enslaved due to famine etc. Pretty hard to break that poverty consciousness. The father may have more say than you think or may be the family already been chosen to be somert and there never was a father.

    Hat's off, let a real story begin.