On being broke, being poor, and being glad that I have the luxury of saving
I hate the end of the year in Benin. Everybody turns into a liar. “I’ll pay you tomorrow.” “I’ll call you this evening.” “Stop by at the end of the week.” “Let’s make an appointment for 4:00.” Nobody calls, and we constantly show up to empty offices. It’s more socially acceptable (and easier) to lie than it is to simply admit that they don’t have the money.
Manipulating and manging people you owe money to is an essential part of Beninese culture. You can’t cut someone off unless you have a face-to-face meeting, and if miraculously the face-to-face meeting never occurs, well, it’s your debtor’s lucky day. “Il nous gere.” we say to one another, and sigh.
The biggest spender in Benin is the government, who ran out of money in May. Since then, they’ve been begging, borrowing, and stealing (oh yes) just to pay salaries. Contracts finished in 2008 rest unpaid, and look to stay that way until at least April 2010. If the government can’t pay its large contractors, large contractors can’t pay medium sized contractors, who can’t pay the small businesses they work with, and at the end of the day, somebody’s salary’s not getting paid.
People Online works with small businesses. A lot of people owe us money. It’s easy to say, “Cut off their hosting! Stop doing work for them!” But if we do that, then we lose any change of recouping our losses when everyone finally does get paid in April 2010. And of course, you can’t squeeze water from a stone. We’re well aware that our clients are broke broke broke. It’s not like it’s their fault. Their clients aren’t honoring their contracts either.
Neighbors who can’t pay their rent. Friends who’ve had their electricity cut off. Colleagues who can no longer afford their Internet connection. Small businesses that can no longer pay salaries. This is the precarity of the middle class.
What do you do when a friend comes to borrow $20, and for the first time it’s a choice between helping your friend and paying your water bill? When your brother, who’s always been able to rely on you in a pinch, needs twice as much as usual, but you only have half as much as usual? When your niece’s family can’t afford her school fees, and you no longer have enough to make up the difference?
In normal times, you wouldn’t hesitate to put yourself in a position of slight difficulty to help out your family. You know that when you’re in trouble, your neighbors and family will be there for you too. Everybody’s always broke, and the the easy give-and-take of favors often means the difference between being broke and being poor. Today, the friendly process of social loans has stopped working, and it’s breaking apart the fabric of society.
Everyone knows the end of the year is difficult. Smart businesses (like People Online) prepare a cushion. Normally, this process starts right about now. Mid-November. The gov’t closes the its coffers, and everyone begins the waiting game until February, when some bills will start to get paid, or April, if you’re a small business owed by the government.
This year, the government stopped paying its bills in September, which means that funds were cut off before anyone finished establishing their cushion. Call it corruption, call it the financial crisis, call it utterly irresponsible government spending, call it what you will. The country’s run out of money, and for Benin’s middle class, the difference between being broke and being poor gets just a little bit more blurrier every day.