I spent this week in Cotonou and two surrounding provinces in southern Benin with CARE USA, a humanitarian organization that runs poverty alleviation programs around the world. As a new board member, I am both moved by our work here and deeply concerned by the flaws in the aid model that persist despite several decades of meager results in West Africa.
On each leg of the trip, I met people whose stories reveal what life is like on next to no income. I’ll publish them in pieces.
Arrival. Saturday, February 16th.
Our CARE security detail let me off the reservation long enough to conduct some interviews with people on the street. Odile Attanasso, a well-heeled professor at the local university of Abomey-Calavi, agreed to join me. I told Odile and our driver that my mission was to find workers around town who earned less than $2 for a full day’s work. She chuckled: this would be an easy assignment. Forty percent of Benin’s 9M people live on under US $1.50 a day.
Near a highway underpass, we spotted a child who looked about eight. He shyly approached our car to sell us filtered water in small sachets from a bucket on his head, stabilized by an old t-shirt wrapped into a stand. Pierre, a sad-looking sliver of a boy who told us he was 13, relayed his story. Two years ago, his father sent him from a village in Abomey to apprentice with a friend in Cotonou. The friend had a job as a security guard watching over a boutique and had agreed to pay Pierre’s school fees. In fact, the guard was broke. He and Pierre slept outside the shop every night, hiding their valuables under their sleeping mats to avoid thieves. Two weeks ago, the guard abandoned Pierre after stealing 500 CFA (US $1), all the money he had at the time. Now the boy lives on the street.
A man took pity on him and gave Pierre a whopping 2,000 CFA (US $4), which he used to start a micro-business: he bought a plastic bucket and a parcel of 20 water sachets. On a good day, he sells four parcels for a total profit of $2. Most days, he sells far less. Some days, his customers take water without paying and he doesn’t eat. A nearby shopkeeper has taken to Pierre and lets him sleep inside sometimes. His clothes had tape over the seams to patch them; he told us he was wearing his only shirt and pants.
I’ve met thousands of Pierres in poor countries all over the world. Still, his story stings. How do we allow ourselves to live with this kind of devastating inequality?
Later, I poked around online and found a home operated by the Salesians, Catholic priests who run training and youth programs in poor countries around the world. One of them returned a missed call on a Sunday night to direct me to their center in the main market of Cotonou. I hesitated for a minute before I passed their number along to CARE, thinking, probably unfairly, of Ratzinger’s resignation, and then realized that the Pierres of the world have little choice over their destiny. They are lucky just to have a place to sleep.