Social Currency

If this were your house, what would you do?
If this were your house, what would you do?

“Why don’t they just fix it themselves?”

If I had a dollar for every time someone said that to me about the people of Haiti I wouldn’t be $1700 short in my fundraising!

There are a few answers to that question. At least from my über limited perspective.

  1. Haiti is so poor that they just don’t have the infrastructure and resources to even conceive of a solution. It’s just too big and they have been too dependent on the outside world to help them to solve it themselves.
  2. Culture has put up some major barriers. There are laws and traditions to be obeyed which make seemingly easy problems to fix nearly impossible. For instance, you’d need a permit (which costs money) to haul away the rubble of a home you rent. (which you are still paying the rent for) You have to find the owner, (who might live in Haiti or the U.S., you’ve never met him but only paid his cousin) who has to provide the government (which fell down) with proof of ownership (which was destroyed when government buildings collapsed) before you can hire workers to remove the rubble. (which costs money, and the government hasn’t yet determined where to take all of the rubble)
  3. The poorest of the poor don’t have the social currency to not worry about breaking the law/culture and looking past a lack of resources for the sake of doing some good.

What is social currency?

I first thought of this often debated online phrase in the real world while in Haiti in February. Like a lot of relief workers I struggled with what I saw. It just didn’t reconcile with the world I know.

I’m not a sociologist. But this is how I think of social currency.

If my house partially collapsed, killing my family, what would I do? Obviously, I’d call 911 and 6 minutes later a miniature army of highly trained firefighters would show up. Then a news helicopter would fly overhead so that the entire metro area would know what had happened within the hour. In shock and not knowing what else to do, I’d get in an ambulance and go to the hospital. At some point soon after that my insurance agent would call me. I’d call some friends who would rally around me. Within about 48 hours I’d be planning funerals, talking to endless insurance people about life insurance and property insurance, while a group of friends would help me “get back on my feet.” In the meantime, I’d probably stay with some friends or relatives before settling into a long-term hotel that my insurance company would pay for (and going to a years counseling that my health insurance company would pay for) while they took care of hiring contractors to pull permits and level the house before rebuilding it.

That’s a lot of social currency. I’d call on all of those government and financial institutions without thinking about it because I’ve paid into those institutions! I’d call on friends to help because we have a perceived reciprocal society. Just the thought that “they’d do the same for me” would compel them to help.

How would that change if I were the poorest of the poor, living in a country with no infrastructure, and the entire city I lived in collapsed? Those with financial means would leave immediately. This would be the land-owners and business people. Those with no means (the homeless, the orphans, the widows) are just kind of frozen. They don’t know what to do because they don’t know the questions to ask nor the ramifications of what would happen if they “just fixed stuff.” Nor do they have the resources to fix stuff. Nor do they have the energy or equipment to fix stuff.

I remember Seth Barnes asking people what they were going to do and the dialogue always went like this:

What are you going to do about your home?

– I don’t know. I’m waiting for the government to help me.

Has the government ever helped you in the past?

– [laughter] Of course not.

The poorest of the poor are, unfortunately, dependent on help. The real question for them seems to be… what will accepting help cost them? Remember that Haiti is a place of both spiritual and real oppression. Accepting help may land them into a debt that costs a lifetime to repay. This is a place where children are trafficked and labor is unregulated. This is a place where, on a good day, the police are uncaring about your plight. But on a bad day, the police are just as dangerous as the oppressors. They may even be the oppressors in some neighborhoods.

What would you do? You’d laugh at those silly barriers in full knowledge that the landlord wouldn’t care that you cleared the property. At the very least you’d knock down your condemned home and pile up the rubble to be hauled away. Chances are pretty good that you’d also try to organize your neighbors into a group of workers who would go around clearing rubble for other people. Say, old women. That’s the power of social currency. You aren’t frozen. When everyone is stuck, you’d naturally rise up and take action.

This is why you should consider a relief trip to Haiti

If you are a reader of this blog I want to encourage you to find an agency of relief and pray about going to Haiti in the next 12 months. You have resources. You are ignorant of culture barriers. And you have social currency to spare.

Published by Adam McLane

Adam McLane is a partner at The Youth Cartel, co-author of A Parent's Guide to Understanding Social Media, blogger of 10+ years, and a fan of all things San Diego State University Aztecs.

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