By Nick Malouin, KF10, Senegal
Whether at home or abroad no one likes to see people begging for money. In the countries where most Kiva Fellows come from it’s a sad sign of social dysfunction and a failure to provide adequate opportunities for everyone. But in the developing world could it actually be a sign of progress? After all, if a country can support begging, then it must be generating income beyond mere subsistence.
In Togo, where I spent my first three months, this seemed to be the case. Even in the major towns and cities I saw very little begging and unfortunately this wasn’t proof of a strong economy or good job prospects. According to the International Monetary Fund Togo is right next to Afghanistan in GDP per capita. At $823 per person this puts it in the bottom 10 countries. Moreover, with high unemployment you would expect there to be some begging, and yet there was none. Was begging in Togo impossible or did people choose not to beg?
Last week I left Togo and moved to Senegal, where the GDP per capita is twice that of Togo’s. I saw many traditional signs of development – paved roads, housing construction, consistent electricity and a functioning communication network. Walking around Dakar I also saw another difference – a significant number of beggars. Those who have visited Dakar might remember the young boys, seemingly on every corner, who hold up their hands and ask for change. Thinking back to Togo I wondered if this was another, less obvious sign of development.
As I soon learned however, in Senegal begging is both an economic and social phenomenon. It’s unlikely that hundreds of boys spontaneously started to beg in every Senegalese city – in fact they were often sent to collect money by religious teachers, called Marabouts, who practice a certain interpretation of Islam. The children, who are orphans or come from impoverished families, are sent to beg for money during the day and are taught the Koran at night. Undoubtedly many Marabout provide a valuable social service. Others, though, have been under scrutiny because the children are poorly treated if they don’t collect enough money.
So what does this have to with U-IMCEC, the MFI I have started working with? The story ties in with them in one important way. Many U-IMCEC branches have partnerships with Programme de Developpement de l’Enfant et de la Famille (PDEF), an organization that supports the development of young children in Senegal by providing subsidized services like education and health insurance. Families who are a part of PDEF also receive reduced interest rates on U-IMCEC loans that can help them start or grow a business. Instead of a 16% annual interest rate members receive a rate of 12%. When raising a child becomes a financial burden for some Senegalese families those savings can make an impact. It could be the difference between a family sending their child to school or sending them to beg. In one branch alone in Dakar over 120 families have benefited from the program.
Clearly, begging is a function of many factors besides just GDP. Culture, customs, politics and income levels all have an impact. When most developed countries still grapple with the problem there isn’t a simple answer. Despite the difficulty however, keeping children in school seems to be a good start.