Why not write a check?

Why not write a check?

Disclaimer: These publications were written by each author in his/her personal capacity. The opinions expressed in these articles are the author's own and do not reflect the view of the University of Virginia nor the University of Virginia's Guatemala Initiative.

The limitations of a single perspective

As individuals we have a strong bias to see what is directly before us. As if trapped within an island of solipsism and egoism, we see things not as they are, but as they relate to our own perception. As I walk through the streets of Xela I see many white backpackers pass by, I notice how they look so out of place. I notice how I feel less out of place when I see another traveler. I feel shame for even feeling this way, unconsciously searching for comfort in what I know when I am here to learn about other ways of life.


I think about what happens when I return home. I think about how things will “go back to normal.” Whatever normal may be for me. How symbols of “development” like “Netflix,” “Amazon Prime,” and “Taco Bell” will fill my field of vision. How the work that I will have committed to will have been “completed.”


In truth, it is never completed, and it was never my own work to begin with. Being here in Xela has made me just start to see how small I truly am, how working with local doctors and firefighters will only be one very small piece of a larger picture. I am trapped within an island of solipsism and egoism, whether I like it or not. I had seen my project as a culmination of months of hard work but it was not until I arrived that I realized the work had not even started. Even after I leave, there will be much more to do.


There are many NGOs in Guatemala, working with orphanages, clinical care, education, public health, and more. According to many who have been here for a while, they see NGOs come and go, just like the backpackers on the streets. I too will be one of those vanishing backpackers. I pause and wonder, why am I here?


To act, to give, or to remain idle?

Each time I open my wallet and withdraw a Quetzal I wonder if it is worth it, literally. I reflect back on the words of utilitarian bioethicist Peter Singer, “If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance we ought, morally, to do it.” This quote forms the central argument of Singer’s seminal essay, “Famine, Affluence, and Morality.” In this essay Singer argues that we should do all that we can to prevent needless pain and suffering. Singer specifically argues for donating to those currently dying from lack of food, shelter, and medical care.


I think back to my wallet, back to the grants I was given by my school to work on this project. Who am I to be able to choose what hostel I stay at? Who am I to be able to be able to purchase food from a street vendor? All of this money could go to promoting sustainable missions in Guatemala, to provide more access to the bottom level of Maslow’s hierarchy. Instead of spending my money on a plane ticket to get here and back, that money could provide medical care for many. Why am I so important?


I feel compelled to believe that it should not be this way, that I shouldn’t have this privilege. But the fact of the matter is that I do, and I can choose to act or remain idle.


While I do choose to act, I wonder if my actions are assuaging some inner psychological guilt. Perhaps there is a deep evolutionary drive which compels me to help other members of this tribe called the human race. But for how long will I continue to act?


Ripples in a pond

The question of “how long” is what hit me the hardest. Perhaps I will feel better for a bit when I leave, and then perhaps I will attempt to return to Guatemala, or perhaps another country that I feel I can “help.” That’s not the point, that’s psychological egoism. Upon much reflection, what I believe really matters is sustaining promises with members of a community. Whether it is Appalachia or Guatemala, what seems to matter is having an organization with the ability to have continual commitment each year.


While Singer can advocate for giving what we can, it is likely that most people will not do this simply by being told to write one check. Moreover, even if someone does write a check, it is likely that they will not continue to do so monthly. A phenomena known as moral licensing has been studied by psychologists for years, the idea that one perceived “good” action will cause a person to do fewer perceived “good” actions in the future. The explanation behind moral licensing is that people are generally more concerned about looking good than doing good. This phenomena has been said to be behind movements like the “Ice Bucket Challenge” which went viral but relatively, raised little money compared to charities which encourage commitment. Moreover, the lack of commitment resulted in one big push for donations, and then a relapse, while many other related organizations suffered from a decrease in donations (Kouchaki, 2011).


Commitment seems to be a deciding factor here. If a partnership is established, rather than a one-time donation, then the project becomes a collaboration, it spreads, and it becomes sustainable.


But why not sign up for an automatic service which donates a portion of your income monthly?


I don’t pretend to have an answer here.


What I can say is that I am a ripple in a pond, something much larger than myself. Being a part of the UVA-GI has begun to show me how limited this project may be, but how powerful it is. The world's a stage and we all play our role. After I leave, the project will continue, bomberos will continue to fight fires, to save lives, and I will be back in the States -- for the time being. The song will continue on and I will have contributed but a verse.


How does this compare to writing a check? There is something unquantifiable within the realm of human experience, something that cannot be measured against a check. It consists somewhere in being with others, listening to stories, and building strong friendships that allow this work to continue on. It’s not a mission to help, or to do good, I don’t pretend to know what those even are -- instead it is a mission rooted in human companionship.


We can choose to be egotistic, to believe our checks will solve to problem. A second option is to be connect, to collaborate, and to learn from others.


If you give a man a fish, he will have dinner; if you teach a man to fish, he will learn; if you listen to that man; you may learn that the man was allergic to fish in the first place. It is in building trust and commitment, not simply financial gains, that humanity grows.




Kouchaki, M. (2011). Vicarious moral licensing: the influence of others' past moral actions on moral behavior. Journal of personality and social psychology, 101(4), 702.

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