Living in Quito, you can try to ignore poverty, but sometimes it walks up and speaks directly to your face.
The three dark-eyed boys looked smaller and younger than they were, at ages 5, 9 and 11. Recognizing us from the food kitchen were we volunteer, they shuffled up, no shoes on their feet. Only the middle brother, Omar, still had his socks. “What happened?” I exclaimed. “They were stolen” they tell us. “What?” I respond, confused and slightly wary-no one wants to be taken for a sucker. Slowly over the next 20 minutes we tease out a jumbled story about how they no longer have the only pairs shoes they owned, but (worse?) despite being barefoot, they don’t dare go home until they finish selling their backpack full of chocolate bars. This is regardless of the quickly approaching nightfall and a good hour trip on public buses for them to get back home. Quito nights are have a district chill and the brothers take turns giving each other piggyback rides because their little feet are tender from walking along the pavement barefoot for most of the day.
What to do? It’s a common struggle for anyone living in a developing country.
After much tangled debate – should we get involved? Are they really telling the truth? Are we just teaching them to beg for free handouts?- we finally pile all three boys into a taxi and take them to a department store to buy them new shoes (a size too big so they can grow into them) and thick, warm socks. All the while under the careful watching eye of a store clerk who doesn’t seem to believe that these slightly raggedy street kids are the ‘hermanitos’ (little brothers) to the ‘gringa’ (foreigner).
It’s now very much dark out, but still, they ask us to bring them to the entrance of a busy movie theater plaza. I hesitate- I want them to go home, but they say that they must finish selling their chocolate bars before they can go home. The reality of their vulnerability is so apparent. How readily they get in a taxi with virtual strangers only on the promise of new shoes.
Why is the world so harsh? And what can I even do about it?
As the taxi pulls up to the side of the road, I debate in my mind just buying all their chocolate bars so they can go home straight away, but I struggle wondering if that just contributing further to the problem? – encouraging their parents to continue to put them in a potentially dangerous situation for only a couple dollars. But then again, I counter in my head, if I don’t buy those candy bars, are they worse off for having to stay out later into the night?
In these kids, I can directly see how I choose to spend my money impacts their lives – for good or bad.
Fair trade solves this problem. We guarantee fair wages and fair working conditions, resolving the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” conundrum that is so tied into almost ever products supply chain. Simply not buying a product all together doesn’t solve the problem, because these families do need that income simply to survive, but at the same time you don’t want your purchases to be contributing to child labor or other forms of exploitation. Fair trade purchases give families dignified work to support their children and give them a path out of poverty.