Benevolent Paternalism–Holding the Invisible Hand & the Helping Hand

Last weekend, I was speaking to a good friend on the phone. We once lived together in the same house, but now that jobs and geography separate us, speaking to her is a rare and precious treat.  In our conversation, I updated her on my fundraising project for German Chub Choc. Since German was able to open his store in December 2011, I am focusing on raising funds for his long-term medical needs as well as funds that will help keep the store going. My friend asked, “but shouldn’t German Choc be able to keep his store going on his own?”

I had answered my friend simply, “Yes, German should be able to keep his store going on his own, but he has a lot of ongoing expenses that make it difficult.” Yet my friend’s question is worthy of greater reflective consideration, and raises additional questions. Namely, now that German’s store is operational due to donations from his community, Canadians, and Americans, isn’t it now his own responsibility to maintain it? By raising funds to help support his store, am I actually taking away his self-sufficiency over his own income?  Is my fundraising project a form of benevolent paternalism, where I believe that German Choc cannot take care of his own medical and economic needs without my help?

The final question is one I often grapple with, not only for this project but throughout my history as an economically privileged white American woman helping vulnerable people. I bumped up against this question in a visceral way during my college years. I was a dedicated member of Hunger Action, a grassroots initiative that sought to end hunger and homelessness in New York State through direct service and advocacy. I led a regular event called “Bright Nights,” where my friends and I distributed food, clothing, and toiletries to  families who were homeless and living mere blocks away from my college, which has an endowment of millions.

My experience as a privileged college student striving to break down barriers separating me from the adults and families experiencing homelessness who lived within walking distance from my dorm weighed on me. In my senior year, I hosted a “Community Conversation” with my friend who co-founded and led the Class Issues Alliance, a group that supported working-class and first generation college students and advocated on issues pertaining to socioeconomic class differences. Our Community Conversation brought together student groups, staff, and professionals from local organizations to talk about experiences in service and discuss how we could advocate for and with people who are vulnerable while honoring their resiliency.

This long-ago conversation has stayed with me, and is a strong thread tethering me to my present day project. I felt great apprehension in taking on the task of raising funds for German Chub Choc’s medical and economic needs–wondering if I was unwittingly perpetuating an attitude of ivory tower charity by raising funds for an indigenous Mayan human rights defender that I have never met. The reason my project exists though, is because back in November 2011, I met indigenous women’s and land rights Maria Choc, who asked for funds to be raised on German Choc’s behalf. Moreover, in Rights Actions November 2011 fundraising appeal, German speaks for himself, “I am asking for your help out of real need. I have no other option but to knock on the doors of members of the international community. I hope I can appeal to your hearts, as I feel abandoned and dejected.”

Another answer to my question is spoken not in emotion but economics. The average first-year expense for someone who has German’s level of paralysis is $480,431. The cost for each following year is estimated at $63,643. Over a lifetime, the estimated cost for someone who is 25 years old and paralyzed at German Choc’s level of injury adds up to $2,138,824. These numbers only tell part of the story. According to the exchange rate of United States Dollars to Guatemalan Quetzals (GTQ), one US Dollar is equivalent to 7.8 GTQ. German Choc’s estimated lifetime costs are 16,734,158.72 GTQ. I do not yet have information regarding the operating costs of German’s store or the amount of income his store generates. But I do know that almost 60% of Guatemalans live on $2 a day, and German’s parents are unemployed. These facts as well as German’s appeal, answer my question–my fundraising project responds to German’s needs, and not what I, a hemisphere away, have decided his needs are. Yet my broader question, a consideration of how my privilege affects my work with vulnerable individuals and communities carries on, tracing a thread from a soup kitchen in Poughkeepsie to a store in El Estor, and will wind its way to whomever I advocate for next.

Interesting article about benevolent paternalism in African Development courtesy of my friend

Theroux, Paul. “The Rockstar’s Burden.” The New York Times. Published: December 15, 2005 

Source Notes

1. Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation. “The Costs of Living with SCI.” Paralysis Resource Center. 2012

2. Universal Currency Converter. 2012.

3. “Why Guatemala.” Project Harvest, Guatemala. 2012.

4. “About Us.” Hunger Action Network of New York State. 2012.

5. Rights Action Team. “Special Fundraising Appeal–Health Needs and Family Store for German Chub Choc.” Rights Action. 2011. 


One comment

  1. For me, at least, one of the important aspects of being a responsible philanthropist (even if it is still paternalistic in a way) is making sure that funds are actually being used in a way that is useful to the individuals served. I feel that one should constantly be checking in, saying, “Who am I doing this for?” If it is for the benevolent person, that person needs to reevaluate. If you can truly say, “I’m doing this for someone else” and know that that person is actually benefiting, then your efforts are both well-meaning and well-executed. This point began for me in those same Community Conversations in which someone brought up whether it was ok for religious groups to require people to attend services to receive food, etc. I always try to take a look from a less subjective angle to see why I’m choosing a particular course and whether my efforts are desired.

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