How Can a Poor man Live


The title of this post is taken from a Depression-era song, How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?, recorded initially by Alfred Reid in 1929, that infamous year of financial disaster.  It has since been recorded and performed by all sorts of groups and singers including UB40, The Del Lords, Bruce Springsteen and even a band called  Boxcar Satan.

My personal favorite is by Ry Cooder whose powerful version from 1987 can be seen in this clip.

I remember a time when everything was cheap
Now prices nearly puts a man to sleep
Well, when we  get our grocery bill
We feel like making our  will
Tell me,  how can a poor man  stand such times and  live ?
Tell me,  how can a poor man  stand such times and live ?

Well, the doctor comes around with his face all bright
And he says, “In a little while you’ll be all right!”
Well, all he gives is a humbug pill
Dose of dope and a great big bill
Tell me, how can a poor man stand such times and live ?
Tell me, how can a poor man stand such times and live ?

Poverty. Poorness. Money.  These are the some of the rawest and most charged words in the English language, and perhaps in human experience. Louise Hay was saying the other day that it is easier to conduct workshops on sexuality than money. “People just feel so angry about money,” she said.

I have gone through most of my life holding two attitudes towards the stuff.  On one hand I resent it for never being around in the volumes I think I need.  On the other hand I lust after it, gripping it as tight as my first girlfriend’s hand on movie night.

When I was a gainfully employed aid professional, especially before the kids came along, I seemed to enjoy the most comfortable lifestyle.  In the field there was little to spend my earnings on and so it just accumulated month after month in the bank account back home. Housing, transport and in some cases even home-cooked meals and domestic help, were part of the package.

I spent 6 months in Iraq in 1991.  In addition to my salary I was paid $400 a day for ‘post allowance and per diem’.  I lived in a tent provided by the UN, drove a brand new Nissan Patrol provided by the UN, and ate three meals a day prepared by cooks employed by the UN.  The only thing I had to spend my money on was cigarettes and booze, both of which were as cheap as the dust on our tents and clothes.   When I left Iraq I had a savings account balance of $40,000.

In Kenya, in 1992, as the whole of the Horn of Africa seemed to be collapsing, I was involved in setting up several large refugee camps in the northern part of the country.  There was one in particular I liked to visit because the amenities for us expats were so cool.  In particular, I couldn’t get over the linen table service we had at every meal. The UN had contracted a safari company to cater to our needs and so as we saved the world we had the assurance that we would eat very well at the end of the shift.

Yesterday I came across a review of a book written by Ben Rawlence in the Guardian. He focused much of his criticism on  the Dadaab refugee camp in northern Kenya where Somalis have lived for nearly 30 years now. This was the camp I helped set up and which served us  our meals on white tablecloths.  When Rawlence visited Dabaab he apparently could not stomach the sight of hungover aid workers making stacks of tax-free dollars talking pieties about helping poor people.

I must be honest.  When I was in the system I didn’t object to it. I enjoyed the ridiculous amounts I made in Iraq. I didn’t protest the white linen either. I drank my share of Tusker beer late into the night in many other camps across Kenya. And if truth be told, I was always a vocal advocate for aid workers being paid like professionals. Be it in the field or in a capital city, I made sure I got every entitlement and dollar I was owed.  I was an ugly aid worker.

You can make a genuine argument for good perks. Isolation from family and friends. Security risks. Job insecurity. Sophistication and complexity of the role. Risk management.  All worthy and legitimate reasons (most) aid workers are not paid bottom of the barrel wages.  But there is also a counter argument that can be made just as convincingly that the perks are now more important than the reasons.  In other words, good salaries and perks have now become a huge part of every program budget; there is little to distinguish the aid sector from a mainstream industry back home. And that has consequences all down the chain and has transformed the sector fundamentally.

I’m not a huge Serena Ryder fan but one of her songs sums this issue up perfectly:

Take a bite from my rotten apple
He said as he left his castle
With miniscule appendage
And he was such an asshole

Only over loved his mother
Never would he love another
Never really loved his father
Because he was

Saving the world
And some money too
What else in the world

Would you have a man to do
He’s breaking his back
He’s tried and true
He saving the world and some money too

As aid workers we are ultimately there to ‘reduce poverty’. Even government aid agencies as cynical and corrupt as Australia’s mouth this mantra.  Yet, I can’t help but feel that the average ‘poor person’ who is receiving assistance from a western aid agency, can easily identify with the last verse of Alfred Reid’s poor man song,

Most preachers, well, they preach for gold and not for soul
Well, that’s what keeps us poor folks always in a hole
Now, we can hardly get our breath
Taxed and schooled and preached to death
Tell me, how can a poor man stand such times and live ?

Change ‘preachers’ to ‘NGOs’. We harangue and harangue our poor people then retreat with our bulging saving accounts, tax-free incomes, company 4X4s and furnished accommodation feeling pleased that we’ve saved the world. And some money too.


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