It’s something like 4pm. I can get home quick and start writing about resilience for my school work.
As I crossed the road across the tram stop and was about the wait for the next light, a young man said hi to me.
“Hi, do you study at Melbourne Uni?”
Did we make eye contact? This was the corner of Elizabeth Street and Victoria street, where there is always someone standing around trying to promote something. Last time I think they were Mormons, but this time it was some other group. I do not know why I stopped to talk to him. Maybe it was his question, maybe he looked nice, maybe it was because he looked young, or maybe it was his voice. I don’t know. I think it was his question.
“Yeah,” I said as I turned to him. We walked closer to each other; we weren’t even that close physically to begin with. Once again I wonder why I stopped. But oh well.
“You must be very smart,” he said. I shrugged uncomfortably, so I asked back, “Do you study there too?”
He nodded and continued, “What do you study?”
“Uhh the environment.”
“Have you heard of Doctor Without Borders?” He got onto the topic. “We –”
“Oh, MSF.” I almost cut him off.
“Yeah we’re called MSF. Do you know what’s the number one cause of death for children in the world?”
“Diarrhoea?” I probed.
“Yeah you are right! How did you know?” He said, genuinely surprised.
“Oh I know a lot of stuff,” I said, wondering if the sarcasm came through.
He began the monologue, “So as you know, MSF is a neutral, apolitical organisation–”
Which means MSF is misguided and not worth my time after all?
“There are 1.2 million charitable organisations in the world. MSF is one of only two charities to receive the Nobel Peace Prize–”
I know that already, and Nobel Peace Prizes don’t mean everything.
“The other one being Amnesty International–”
Oh, I guess I didn’t know that.
“Now you don’t get the Nobel Peace Prize unless you make a real impact on the world. So MSF has real positive influence on the world. We give kids Plumpy’nuts, which make their arms grow from this size–” he formed a ring with his thumb and index finger, “to this size in just three weeks.” Said he, as he put his thumb and index fingers around his own upper arm.
That’s some pretty good nutrient-thing I guess. I eyed the walking light – it was turning.
“You seem like a busy man. So just tell we’re doing a good job. Are we doing a good job?” He gestured with a thumbs-up.
But I didn’t quite realise what he said at first. My instincts for conversation – reserved for when I can’t hear what people are saying – triggered. But I don’t quite remember what I said to him.
“Here let me show you,” was his reply. He turned and took me away from the road I was going to cross to the streetlight, where two other of his co-volunteers were. “Now we’re a charity, so you can guess what we are looking for, we’re looking for those $1000 dollars!” He laughed. “Hahaha just kidding.”
“Ahh donations,” I smiled in a friendly way. But it made me wonder if maybe this wasn’t about donations, but just some information or newsletter signup kind of thing. If it’s a mailing list, I can just unsubscribe later. The volunteer then crouched and took out an iPad from one of the bags at the base of the streetlight. On the screen was some kind of sign up form.
“So, you being a student, unfortunately, you’re only going to be paying the minimum amount each week. The way it works is that you pay every week for as long as you can. May I have your name please?” I… social pressure! I didn’t say no right away.
“What’s your date of birth?”
“What’s your current address?”
“What is your background?” He asked.
“Uhhh, in what sense?” I hesitated. I’ve been accustomed to telling people I studied biology and was in the Science in Society Program for my bachelor's degree in the past few weeks, but that didn’t quite seem like the right thing to say here.
“As in where you’re from.”
Ohhh. “Hong Kong.”
“Ohh! How long have you been here?”
“Uh, a couple months?” I said.
“Ohhh really! You are new!” He exclaimed. Later I overheard his co-volunteer saying to another passerby that he was from Sri Lanka.
The next item on the form was a tick-box like thing: Male or Female. I was already anticipating that strange feeling whenever I have to answer this question and I knew I wasn’t too fond of filling out that form altogether. But the volunteer was still in good humuor, “Now, are you a mister or a doctor?”
“Hahaha I’m not a doctor!” said I. Annnnd he ticks “Male”. Yep.
“What are you studying again?” He asked me.
“Master of the Environment.” I replied.
“Ahh I see. Yeah, I’m studying in the Master of Biotechnology there, too. It’s so difficult.” Cool story bro.
After asking for my phone number and email address as well, we got to the Payment Details page. On the bottom of the page is a simple “Next” button and nothing else.
“So, do you think you can contribute $5 each week? It’s like… a coffee every week.” I don’t drink coffee dude.
“Uh, actually can I think about this more? Aren’t you signing me up to your mailing list?” I replied.
“No, we collect your payment details now. The donations don’t actually start until November. You can cancel later if you want. You will receive a phone call from MSF asking you if you want to continue. And you can tell them then.” He affirmed.
“Umm, actually can I really think about this more? I would like to think about this more. Can’t I just be on your mailing list?”
“No, we collect your payment details now. Do you know that only 4% of our donors donate online, the rest are done through here.” He looked around the street and to his co-volunteers.
“You mean here on the street,” I knew then I was already slipping into a quagmire.
“If you walk away now, you’re just gonna forget about it. It’s going to happen.” He… pleaded? Or was that an accusation?
I thought for a second. “Yeah, well, I really would like to think about it more, is that okay?”
“Ok, why don’t you want to do it?” Well why do you need to know?
But I stammered. This is NOT the place to explain that I am sceptical of MSF, or that I know next to nothing concrete about what harms MSF actually cause to developing nations and local communities. “AHHHH it’s really hard to explain,” I clamoured. “Wel-Well, first of all, I have to think about my own financial situation. And second, I- I want to read more into it first. I want to read more about what MSF does and stuff.”
“It’s just like a coffee a week –” I DON’T DRINK COFFEE BRO “Just $5 a week can make a huge difference. It’s just a coffee a week.”
“U-uh, well I want to what the organisation does –“
“Oh, do you want to know how the money is used? I can show you. Here,” He presented a pamphlet. “As you can see, 5% goes to administration, 14% goes to more fundraising, the rest – 81% – goes to where it is needed. The money is going to go to where it is needed the most. So MSF does a lot of work in Syria and South Sudan, you know, there are civil wars going on there.” And that’s important. I guess maybe I can justify that MSF can’t mess up too badly in emergency situations. There was also that recent bombing. “And also West Africa,” Which country? “You know, with Ebola. There’s still some stuff left to clean up there. Did you know we have a vaccine for Ebola now?” I stammered again – Was it a vaccine or a cure (imperfect)? Anyways I had been reading about it, but I just didn’t remember.
“Well there’s a vaccine for Ebola now. Now you know. MSF actually accelerated the vaccine development because we put a lot of money into it.” He said. My mind briefly drifted to that world expert on tropical diseases from Nigeria – whose name I have forgotten – who was withheld from the vaccine and died, which prompted the vaccine to be used on the next patient who was American instead. Then it drifted to the effective isolation and hygiene policies Nigeria put to place which eradicated Ebola within its borders… Of course, maybe none of that has anything to do with the MSF. And there was no way to judge if MSF did things right or wrong because I simply didn’t know.
“And here’s the Plumpy’nut,” The volunteer handed a crumpled package of condensed energy and nutrients. Oh it’s not bad. He continued, “It makes kids’ arms grow from this size–” he gestured again, “to this – well a normal size.”
I squeezed on the package more and appeared lost in thought. “I... see.”
“Look, a lot of these doctors and nurses, they go to war zones, they go through a lot of things there. And they don’t get paid. The support really helps.” And I agree that they are brave. I guess they do need support, but…
“Yeah, I know. But… is it okay, can I still think about it first?”
“Can you give me a reason? Why don’t you want to?” Want to “donate?” You could say it, you know
“Look, I am trying to find ways to change the world, and I’m not sure if MSF is the best way for me. So I’m looking.” It’s a bag of worms. He was, of course, not buying it. Which prompted the worms to explode and multiply. “So what how do you plan to change the world?”
“I’m working on that!” I gave a big bright smile and swung my arm across with gusto. Har har har. I do, however, realise that maybe all the thinking I’m doing isn’t going to help the urgent needs of people experiencing civil war right now.
“Look, is it the money?” No it’s not the money! But I didn’t dare say that. Because it is about the money; it’s about how that money is used. “Can you really not spare a cup of coffee every week?” For the last fucking time, seriously.
“Ye-yeah. I think I can handle it.” I replied. It was true. “But still… can I think about it more?” It’s two different things. “I will look more into it though.” I said.
“That’s just a nicer way of saying no, isn’t it?”
“What? Yes, but no, I’ll really –”
“Is it security? Is that what you’re concerned about?”
“No, that’s not it! It’s – AHHH It’s really hard to explain!”
“Well, I guess if you can’t even afford to spare $5 a week now, you won’t spare the $1000 when you get there.” He said.
“That’s not it!” I exclaimed. OH MY FUCKING GOD. I so wish I can tell you my hesitation. That everything is not that simple, that MSF is probably causing harm in some ways, even if I don't know how. But I CAN’T. It’s fucking stupid, it won’t make sense, it’s going to make a huge argument, I don’t know my shit, and you’re not gonna understand it. And if I don’t pull it off properly, it’s going to make you think social science is just a haughty roadblock to justice made of privileged brats who would rather argue than do things. You study biotechnology you say? I can’t have anyone from the medical community or MSF think that!
“Ahh…” I struggled for words, flustered and hurt. Then I saw his face. He was looking off in the distance, his face full of scorn and impatience. “Look,” I said finally. “I don’t want to argue about this now. I’m going to go now.”
“Yeah, have a good day sir.” He said to me.
“You too.” I said to him.
And as I left, I involuntarily let out a huge “UGGHH!” way too early.