The burden of the gift of aid

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Jillian Moore
Jillian Moore is a student at Harvard Medical School. She has worked in rural Mexico and in indigenous communities in Guatemala with Wuqu' Kawoq | Maya Health Alliance. She is currently a Doris Duke International Clinical Research Fellow in Guatemala. Her interests include gender, inequality and marginality, palliative care, and mental health.

The splendor of Lake Atitlán is unreal. No water should be so blue, no sky so clear, no hills so lush. The lake is a beloved tourist destination, and visitors are surely well cared for. Villas and resorts are well kempt, amid empty public health clinics and crumbling schools, and tourists are better fed than local families. The lakeshore communities live off this extractive tourist industry, seeking informal wage labor as bricklayers, hotel staff, artisans, or vendors. But with few steady jobs and meager state welfare, families must make do.

Years ago, I met such families while living in one lakeshore community, and I was fortunate to learn from local women about their everyday lives and experiences. The women described to me often bearing sole responsibility to ensure their families would subsist. As Fiona shared:

There are days their father finds work, and there are days there is none. But you are a mother, so it is your commitment to search for a way to provide for [the children]…if the children have nothing to eat, you find a way: you buy their tortillas or bread…if the father does not have work, I find a way.

By the lake, finding a way may involve turning to charity and aid. Perhaps as many expats settle near Lake Atitlán, the region is saturated with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) offering resources like rations, loans, health care, scholarships, cook stoves and water filters. These small NGOs are often run by people who promote sustainable and participatory approaches, each with their own missions, values and politics of inclusion.

In a recently published article, my colleagues and I consider how women experience interactions with these personalistic NGOs. We find although women perform the labor of participation, NGOs construe aid as a gift. Thus, women assume grateful postures to receive favors of food, education, and healthcare: dignities they should be entitled to as citizens. We describe how women navigate relations with NGOs to attain what they need; how amid precarity and marginalization, women find a way.

To read the article, follow this link: Moore, J., Webb, M. F., Chary, A., Díaz, A. K., Rohloff, P. (2017). Aid and Gendered Subjectivity in Rural Guatemala. Journal of Development Studies.