The Other I

March 8, 2008

How to save the world: let people work

Filed under: Just Stuff,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 4:04 pm

I have just read the obituary of Baba Amte of whom I have never heard before but who died last month in India at the age of 93.  He was a Brahmin, which means he had the benefits of money, status, and education.  By his mid-thirties he was an accomplished criminal lawyer. 

One extraordinary day – and to the absolute horror of his family – he decided to find out what it was like to live the lives to which many of his clients were subjected.  He got a job cleaning latrines nine hours a day.  One day, as he was mucking through the dog shit and human excrement, something moved.  It was a dying leper whose eyes and nose were already gone.  Baba fled.

But he began to think about it.  Where there is fear, he said, there is not love.  And where there is not love, there is no meaning to our lives.  So he went back and brought the leper to his farm where he cared for him until he died.  Then he began training in leper clinics around the town, and finally set aside a piece of his own land for the handicapped and lepers.  They called it “Anandwan,” “grove of joy.” 

Okay, so far a pretty story of generous charity.  But the difference was that the lepers had to build Anandwan themselves from scratch.  They did, with a small selection of tools, and with stumps of hands and stunted legs.  They were not objects of charity.  They were worthwhile human beings doing something nobody thought they could possibly do.  Today 3000 people live there.

People like Baba is why I am in favour of free trade.  Free trade lets people make a living from the work they do.  It’s not Oxfam or NGOs or charitable hand outs which so often make the givers feel generous and heroic but too often make the recipients feel helpless and useless.  Free trade pays people for work they do and things they produce and the contributions they make.

And so I buy Fair Trade coffee.  And I buy strawberries from Kenya in February.

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