In defense of Andrea Scott

Editorial.

Guest blogger Andrea Scott’s opinion piece, “Do handouts really help anyone in Nicaragua,” seems to have touched an exposed nerve. More than 60 readers commented on her article this week, often in hectoring language. The article’s subject matter has also been the topic of more than one beer-fueled debate this week.

While a strong reaction to Ms. Scott’s piece was perhaps to be expected given the sensitive nature of its content, several readers have questioned why The Nicaragua Dispatch would even consider publishing such an article in the first place. So let me explain.

Since day one, it has been the written policy of The Nicaragua Dispatch to invite—indeed encourage—as many diverse perspectives and opinions as possible. That means we will occasionally publish articles that you, Gentle Reader, will disagree with. But that’s a good thing, because otherwise I wouldn’t be doing my job very well.

In fact, if any reader agrees with every word of every article that has been published on this website, I’m probably ready for self-deportation, as Mitt Romney would say. So if anyone has nodded along to every dispatch, please tell me and I will fire myself immediately.

I only agree with about 80% of the articles I have written here; not because I didn’t believe what I was scrawling at the moment, but because my opinions are constantly evolving the more I talk to people, the more I observe my surroundings, the more I report on the news, and the more I wrinkle reluctantly into middle age.

On that note, if I may indulge a moment longer in self-satisfying rant, I want to challenge those readers who were so quick to dismiss Ms. Scott’s opinion because she is “young” or “naïve” or “inexperienced.” So what? Were you never? For that matter, at what point in life does one cease being naïve or inexperienced? Regardless, when did older people become so uninterested in what young people have to say about the world?

I am interested in what young people have to say about Nicaragua, even when I disagree with them. That’s why I’ve spent the past year inviting, encouraging and coaxing high school students, university students, young professionals and other young folk to participate in this online project by submitting articles and blogs. Their opinions count.

Plus, it’s a wonderful thing for young people to be writing, organizing their thoughts, getting published, and sharing their opinions with others. When I was Ms. Scott’s age, I was drinking beers with my friends and engaged fulltime in numbskullery; I wasn’t sitting at my laptop (or scroll of papyrus in those times) and working on a thought piece for the local newspaper.

Even if I did, I certainly wouldn’t agree now with anything I wrote back then. If Tim Rogers 1998 walked into the room right now and started telling me about Nicaragua, I would probably argue with him for half an hour and then politely take leave with some excuse about a dentist appointment.

Ms. Scott should not be attacked for her age (if you fault someone for their age, your argument is fatally flawed from the start), or her inexperience as a traveler (whom among us started off as an experienced world traveler?). Her ideas can be challenged—and should be, like all ideas—but Ms. Scott, the aspiring young writer who wanted to share her perspective with the world, should be commended for participating in and contributing to an important socio-economic debate. That’s what journalism is all about—not solving the problems of the world, but challenging our approach to such endeavors.

So bravo, Ms. Scott. Your article drew 60 comments in 48 hours. You energized a whole bunch of people and made them feel uncomfortable. And that’s something.

 

  • Christopher Montealegre

    Good stuff Tim! I was appalled at the sheer amount of negative feedback that that article had…finding validating or positive comments was like looking for a needle in a haystack! Glad you came out in defense/support of the author; she really didn’t deserve to get treated in the way that she did.

  • Joe

    Tim, great editorial and I agree with your publishing these kinds of views, but you didn’t just fall off the truck either. What ever you write, not everyone is going to agree with you and slap you on the back, (perhaps this editorial is an exception). Please don’t ever feel like you should apologize to any reader for writing what you believe, and you well know that not everyone will agree with whatever you might write. Ms. Scott wrote her views on what she observed and surely, she must expect the criticism. Our ages have a lot to do with how we “see” things, so that is respected as part of the observation process. Her piece was well written and made me think a bit when I walk down these streets I’ve become so fond of too. Bully for that Ms. Scott!

  • Jaime

    I think a few people overstepped into ad hominem territory, but the gist of the reactions seemed pretty universal. Beyond her views being called naive whether because of her age or lack of worldly experience, many of your readers understand journalism as the pursuit of truth in the face of all kinds of relativistic subjectivity… Ms. Scott’s perspective smelled all-too familiar and partisan, and sets up a straw man argument that delves into the tangent of the American Dream (or it’s massive failure due to the rise of a supposed socialist state, to which she alludes in her piece).

    Dear Sir, I, for one, am glad that you invite and entertain different perspectives on your publication, but we as your readers should also have the freedom to critique these perspectives (and please don’t be so shocked should we stoop so low as to question the moral character of an author — it has been known to occur).

  • Ronald

    Ms. Scott wrote an article. People didn’t agree with her and responded to it. Nobody said she didn’t have the right to write what she wrote. But any time one writes something, one opens oneself to criticism. She is a young journalism and this will happen during all her life. People will not agree with her. That’s life. Some of her views were considered offensive by people (including me). She was blaming poor people for being poor and comparing Nicaragua with the US on this particular issue. That wasn’t so smart. She can learn from this experience and move on.

  • Paulette Sokolow

    Tim……I am one who questioned the publication in the Nicaragua Dispatch. However, I agree with you that it is important to allow different perspectives and that it is absolutely necessary if we truly want a conscious society that fosters critical thinking. As a high school teacher, I welcome and respect the ideas and the thoughts of young people and people of all ages. However, I also witness the limiting and potentially damaging views that many of them are beginning to develop – as products of their parents’ views and the society in which they live. They absolutely must be challenged and their minds encouraged to embrace the diversity that the world offers and to look deeper into themselves and the social dilemmas that they encounter. Miss Scott was a brave young woman to express herself in a news article. I commend her for that. I also am relieved to know that so many people came back with a counter response that showed passion for Nicaragua, and passion for social awareness and social justice. The classroom of journalism is certainly less personal and less forgiving than a face-to-face classroom, but one that is necessary.
    I have witnessed the lack of understanding, intolerance, quick judgment and damaging views from both sides of the fence. As someone who truly loves the Nicaraguan people and the country, I have also witnessed some of the intelligent, young people sharing damaging social stereotyping with regards to foreigners visiting their country. It is also their lack of educated perspective and their own social conditioning and prejudice that creates this. We can never justify ignorance, prejudice, injustice, false judgment; but we can learn to understand the reasons behind these perspectives and work toward enlightenment on both sides of the fence. We can take this opportunity to extend the same degree of understanding to all parties involved. We must also never waiver in our commitment to critical consciousness and the social awareness that it fosters. Kudos to Miss Scott for having the courage to write. More kudos if she also has the courage to learn and grow.

  • Joe Diaz

    I thought it was supposed to be satire.

  • Glenn

    Gosh Tim, I must have missed something. I thought I had read all the responses to the comments and follow up of Ms. Scott. Her age I mean. What is too young or too old? I guess at this point I should list all the recognized great people in the world who were considered “young.” But does it really make a difference? I know many “young” people who get it more than some “older” people, and the other way around.

  • http://www.la-esperanza-granada.org pauline jackson

    Well said Tim

  • http://www.real-france.blogspot.com helen devries

    The lady had a place to state her opinion….so did the commentators, thanks to the existence of the ‘The Nicaragua Despatch’.

  • Mark Oshinskie

    Cats kill millions of songbirds.

    • Erik Jota

      I agree, but every morning songbirds kill that extra hour of sleep I so much need.

  • Mark Turner

    I was a newspaper publisher for 25 years and, the letters to the editor, that I most enjoyed were the ones that were critical of the newspaper or myself. The public seemed to enjoy those also.

  • http://www.retirenicaragua.wordpress.com Debbie Goehring

    Tim, I respect good journalism and differences of opinion because it shines light into dark corners of our world that we would prefer to keep comfortably hidden. Andrea did expose an uncomfortable truth, that being the complex subject of poverty. Rereading the comments, I believe that the majority of responses were made in reference to her damaging stereotypes, sweeping generalizations, and inaccurate perceptions of the woman begging in the article.
    Good journalism uncovers injustices and the dirty world in which we live, as well as giving a voice to the powerless. It provides us with accurate information empowering us to right the wrongs. Andrea whispered her dismay at poverty. Her solution to complicated problem was to blame the victims…a prevalent and misguided mindset in our world. I agree with Paulette. This mindset needs to be changed.
    I do believe that journalism challenges us to explore creative solutions to complex issues…be it good or bad journalism. So, I offer several challenges to your readers and guest bloggers:
    1. Andrea, your article invoked many responses in that it contained a mixture of compassion and damaging stereotypes. Most first time tourists to Nicaragua are cast into the ring of poverty like a circus ringleader watching his tigers. Like you, they have never encountered children begging for food, street-kids passed out from sniffing glue, and the unimaginable world of begging. As a first time visitor, you have given us your perspective of this world. As a beginning journalist, you asked, “Do handouts really help anyone in Nicaragua?” Maybe you can write a follow-up article offering suggestions for first-time tourists who encounter begging. What can we do to change the mindset and what can tourists do instead of offering handouts?
    2. Tim, as a result of Andrea’s article, would it be possible for you to make a page on The Dispatch, similar to the Tourism Directory, compiling a list of volunteering opportunities for tourists and visitors? Many first-time visitors want to help, but they don’t know how or where to get information. Because of Andrea’s article, I was inspired to start a page on my blog offering a list of volunteer opportunities on Ometepe Island.
    3. For the readers and responders, keep up the excellent insight. Respond with your opinions and suggestions because that’s how we can make our world a little better..one opinion at a time.

  • Jorge Greco Rodriguez

    Points of views are numerous, but being a great journalist is a gift, that is why I never believe most of them, all they care about is their story

  • John Shepard

    We found out late in the comments that the woman was mentally ill, not “just a beggar”. Andrea clearly didn’t know this. She sounded like she was experiencing a bit of “beggar fatigue”; hard to behave like JC ALL the time.

    I find my attitude towards beggars reflects the type of day I am having. If it’s a good day, I am generous. If I’m having a bad day, it’s “quit sniffing glue and get a (real) job”. I also like a good story and respond proportionately to the complexity of the tale that is woven for my amusement.

    If the reaction to Andrea’s story is any measure of her success as a journalist, then she has a great future. I am eagerly anticipating a follow up piece when she returns next year to Nicaragua. BeggarGate II – Andrea Returns.

  • Orlando J. Moncada

    I think Andrea’s sin was generalization. Her wording seemed to imply that all Nicaraguans are like the lady that inspired her story. Of course I don’t like it, however it is her way to express an opinion and as Voltaire put it, I might disagree with what you say but I will defend with my life your right to say it.

  • Nick

    Looks like The Dispatch is growing and maturing. Congratulations. The whole stream of commentary might very well make for a small thesis project for a student of sociology or international development…. looking at the issue through the different prisms as expressed in reaction to Andrea’s opinion piece. Anyway….
    Aside and apart from the specifics (whether the lady on the steps has mental problems or whether the tykes in the park take the coins they manage to get and go to a video game arcade), the general idea of “handouts” needs a reasoned discussion. The world is full of examples where such handouts do nothing to resolve the underlying problem (the old adage of give someone a fish or a fishing pole).
    First of all, in acute emergency situations caused by natural disasters, handouts are absolutely necessary. In chronic emergency situations, a longer-lasting response is called for.
    Second, in these chronic situations, handouts do not work. The Ortega government began a program in the countryside of giving extremely poor people different farming related items in order to give them a leg up. In cases where they gave one of these pigs and advice on how to raise and breed them, the pigs did not last long because they in fact represented a burden for the family, who now had to find a way to feed the extra mouths in their yard. Other approaches to the problem have been tried with differing degrees of success, though for most people looking on, it is difficult to see improvement when a family goes from being “extremely poor” to “poor”. (The technocrat distinction between those with $1 a day versus $2 a day.)
    Creating dependence is a problem, which is why some of the more successful poverty alleviation projects do not “give away” something. Material and technical assistance is provided from outside while those benefitting are required to contribute a small portion of their income and/or labor. With housing, the Techos program seems to be working as does the Santa Helenita project just east of the Empalme to Boaco.
    When people receive something at a cost, they are more likely to care for it and appropriate it as their own possession and responsibility.
    This was confirmed for me years ago in a minor way with a TV set I gave to a man who was doing odd jobs around the house. He was quite content at the time, but a few months later he became upset with me because when the TV needed a repair (likely because of the constant power fluctuations and black/brown outs that characterized the electricity supply at that time), I said it was not up to me to pay for fixing it.
    And another time, I gifted bicycles to some people working for me. Those bikes did not last long. But on the other hand, when I opted for lending the employee money (to be paid off with small weekly interest free payments over the course of a year), the bikes were as well maintained as could be expected.
    Anyway, the problem is complex and trashing someone’s musings on the subject accomplishes nothing.
    I second the idea mentioned above, if possible, for Tim to have a link on this site that would list the plethora of small-scale projects doing good work throughout the country so that anyone who feels so inclined can participate or contribute in another fashion.

    • Karen in Los Angeles, Ometepe

      In the case of a cow & chickens given to a farm family I know, they were extremely grateful & are benefiting enormously from the milk & eggs that they now get.

  • http://www.facebook.com/carol.s.lynch Carol Scism Lynch

    The stigma of poverty, for you who care to delve deeper into the subject.

    http://truth-out.org/news/item/12264-lies-of-plutocracy-exploding-five-myths-that-dehumanize-the-poor

  • I heart the dispatch

    You the man Tim!

    • I heart dispatch

      Also, can I borrow five bucks?

  • John

    Tim,
    I generally like your articles and appreciate what you’ve done here with The Nicaragua Dispatch but I think you’ve got this one wrong. While you should be commended for supporting young writers and helping them pursue their career ambitions, the opinion piece in question was neither compelling enough for print nor appropriate for your audience. Creating controversy and reaction is not justification enough. Anyone can do that. and indeed I believe your paper is better than that. You have a highly intelligent readership that I believe demands more. This was a tough issue, to be sure. When I read the title of the article, I was excited to hear some intelligent perspective on the issue of handouts, and ostensibly poverty, in Nicaragua. For your readership, I believe this is one of the central questions to our experience in Nicaragua. I’m sure Andrea will be a great writer one day. But it was not fair to put her in this position. She is simply not equipped to weigh in on such issues in front of this forum. Poverty is Nicaragua and throughout the world can be better defined and explain with the help of a number of academic disciplines that touch on the issue, i.e. economics, political science, human rights, etc. Not to mention a good understanding of the local context. It does not seem like the author brought to bear even a shallow knowledge of any of these fields. I know this is not an academic journal, nor should it be. But I would hope that when an editor of a paper I like and read chooses to present an important and sensitive issue to his readership he would better evaluate the qualifications and appropriateness of the writer at hand.

    • Eric

      Lo John, Just maybe you are setting your standards just a slight bit above us more ‘common than you’ folks? I also enjoyed the article because, along with the abundant responses, it started an ongoing conversation about poverty and such matters that even you admit to having an interest in. I say, cudos to the author and thank you to Tim for having the decency to publish the article, sorry I’m not more more inclined to the erudite to please everyone!

  • Carlos Cuadra

    Tim, congratulations. The Nicaragua Dispatch is a great paper online. I have just one question. I’m a Nicaraguan and U.S.Citizen. So my question is: Where to vote for US president in Nicaragua?.

    Actually I’m living in Granada. Any help?, Thank Tim. Carlos

  • Rebecca Ore

    For people with debilitating mental problems, humane countries have provided asylum in the better senses of the word. Nicaragua has people on the street who might be institutionalized in Europe — but it’s a poor country and has more urgent needs — fighting dengue, infant inoculations, clean water, waste treatment. The people with debilitating mental problems aren’t going to be able to work outside sheltered and structured workshop situations. I worked one graduate school holiday for a group of NY State workers who managed moving retarded people from large scale institutions to group homes — and one of the clerks in the group had a retarded child who had benefited from the move.

    That’s one thing — other countries seem to be less brutal to those people than the average I’ve seen in the US. They can manage some things, but not a fully independent life. It’s either family, neighbors and personal charity or a more institutionalized life.

    The other thing is begging in tourist areas by young children. Sometimes, they’re sent out by their parents. A friend and I fed one girl lunch. She seemed very torn between wanting to hustle for money and eating. The waitresses at the lunch place said her mother sent her on the street to beg.

    Not all these kids are one thing — some of them are just trying their luck; some of them are future sex-workers (as I suspect our young lunch guest was); some of them are using drugs. There’s no single solution here — keeping the kids who are trying their luck in school is easier than keeping someone in school whose parents are themselves in prostitution or criminal endeavors. Dealing with kids using drugs is yet another problem.

    The real issue with giving street kids money is obviously they don’t stay young and cute for long, and a young adult is either going to be going into sex work or will be stealing to keep up the income if they’ve been depending on that income for survival (and not all of them do — I suspect that at least some kids do beg to buy things their parents wouldn’t buy them).

    I’m also curious — is there money to be made writing for The Nicaraguan Dispatch. Journalism these days is notoriously poor paying in the US, and positions are more difficult to find without an internship (or several) than in the time I worked for a weekly in rural Virginia. If she wasn’t paid well for this piece, or if she wasn’t paid at all, then she really needs to consider how people can do things and still not be able to make a decent living from them.