The Ecology of Dollars

In July of 1864, Henry David Thoreau refused to pay his six-cent poll tax, an act of resistance against the war the United States had provoked with Mexico under the conceit of ‘manifest destiny.’ Handcuffed by the Middlesex County police one thick afternoon, he spent all of a night in jail only to be bailed out the next morning by his sister the following morning, who greeted her surely starving brother with steaming hot chocolate. The productivity and pacifism of Thoreau’s act has been pondered by scholars and activists over the years, as Paul Hawken explains in his most recent book Blessed Unrest. In whatever ways Thoreau's refusal to pay made ripples, the basic and simple realization he had that July was this: everything is interconnected. In the same way that his teacher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, had laid out principles of ecology and interconnectedness within the natural world, Thoreau took the meaning of ecology to heart and saw it within the social world as well. His gesture, radical in its intention for the time, pointed out that the financing of an unjust war and exploitation of humans in a land far south of Massachusetts was somehow supported by his tax cents. Thoreau’s doctrine on social interconnectedness lives on in Civil Disobedience, and also in the power of our dollars. Though the power of the dollar, even one dollar, may not be revelatory to us today, we still need the Thoreaus of the world to help us understand exactly where our money is going.

Fifty percent of Rwanda’s $1.2 billion national budget is coming from international aid money this year, donated by NGOs or other governments directly, and that’s just the aid money channeled through Rwanda's government. Large-scale internationally-based projects such as InterHealth, the Elizabeth Glasser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, and the Clinton Foundation are all providing health-based services for hundreds of thousands of Rwandese in need of the basics that we generally take for granted. Organizations such as these spend billions each year creating a current that hopes to raise all boats, so to speak, and I have no doubt that they act as a crucial mechanism for distributing money and services to millions (billions, even) around the world living in poverty. But on a micro level the connections between, say, a donor to a major charitable foundation and the recipient of an aid project become a bit muddled. Most often, proof that the money was well-spent turns up in the form of statistics published in annual reports and proof that the money was donated at all shows up as a charitable tax deduction on the donor’s tax return. But the ease of this transaction comes with other costs. These dollars will never have a face, of the individuals benefiting from donation, nor will they be siphoned into projects that aren't, among other things, sexy.

Aveh Umurerwa, loosely translated as a Center for Handicapped Children, is one small project that remains unaffiliated and unfunded. Located in Bugasera District of the Eastern Province of Rwanda, ten minutes down a newly paved road from a Catholic Church in which over 10,000 women and children were murdered in a single day in April of 1994, this center houses 15 young people who have been cast out of their families and communities because of mental or physical disabilities. It began with the initiative of one woman, Cecile, who brought a few children to live in this two-room hut next to her small pharmacy and enlisted a few community adults to play with the children, help them brush their teeth, and see that they receive at least one meal a day. While all of the children at Aveh Umurerwa benefit tremendously from this much needed dose of love, each is also in need of medical care that the center simply doesn’t have the money or know-how to provide. I visited here last Friday, with Katie and an Orthodox Jewish doctor from Long Island named Rick, who has practiced medicine in Ethiopia for over 20 years. In a matter of minutes, Rick was able to diagnose the syndrome (multiple, in some cases) and prescribe a typical course of treatment. For two four-year olds strapped into strollers, both might have a chance of walking if they practiced an hour or two of physical therapy each day. For another with a spinal deformity, a relatively simple surgery would prevent further degeneration. The children with hearing disabilities could lead semi-normal lives if they were taught alternative communication skills.

But talk of such specialized medical care probably dissolved as soon as we drove away. A few families have given $5 or $6 a month to help pay for their child to live here, but Cecile’s profits from her pharmacy next door hardly make up the remainder of the operating costs. With a few additional dollars a day, each child might eat three meals instead of two. With an extra hundred dollars or so, they might purchase some chickens and a handful of rabbits to breed and sell, a small farm that could in turn generate revenue over the long-term. With $10,000 they would build a new structure with space for each child to have a bed, maybe even raising overall occupancy. Aveh Umurerwa has received donations of toys, clothes, and strollers but what they really need is the cash for daily expenses. And they need a face.

It isn't purely by chance that Katie has helped create a small pool of donors for this project that otherwise would be flying completely under the radar of the international aid community. Aveh Umurerwa isn't sustainable in the way that development organizations like to talk about sustainability: few if any of the children raised here will turn out to be productive members of society, hence any money given to them doesn't really benefit Rwanda as a whole, or even their local community. It just helps keep them nourished, protected and loved, and the significance of those simple yet tedious acts didn't go unnoticed to Katie and and a few colleagues who have seen many other projects where children are neglected or opportunities to help children dealt a similar life hand have been squandered. But donating cash to Aveh Umurerwa isn't convenient (checks have been made out to Katie, who delivers the money in person, and gifts are not tax-deductible), it isn't going towards the most glamorous of charities, and perhaps most frustrating of all, it is only helping 15 children. But despite all of this, they are slowly gaining a face. Because Katie knows exactly where the money is going, trusts that it will continue to be utilized appropriately, and has been able to share the story of the project with friends and family at home in the US a few thousand dollars have already been donated for daily costs. Perhaps a few thousand more will be given later this summer, through a wedding registry set up by Katie's boyfriend Dave's sister and her fiancé.

Projects like Aveh Umurerwa will probably never be taken under the wing of large international NGOs and too rarely will they receive as much funding as they truly need. But giving children, such as the ones I've photographed above, the chance for a slightly better life isn't impossible, even if it doesn't always make sense to do so. It requires on-the-ground knowledge, the benevolence of donors to give without personal benefit, and intention to give dollars a face, to recognize where they're ending up. However small the group of people, the dollar amount, or the locality, mechanisms can be created globally to make this happen.