On Thursday I stared straight into the face of a standard ethical dilemma and was completely taken aback by my indecision.
I interviewed a group of women who overcame substantial obstacles and now work together as seamstresses. The organization that set me up with these women had broached the idea of paying them for their time and reimbursing them for meal and transportation costs. I balked, since journalists don't pay for interviews (or shouldn't, in my opinion), and the organization backed down.
After we did the interviews, the women asked my translator for "chai money." I asked if that was standard, and he said another organization he works for sometimes - when pushed - gives interview subjects about 3,000 Tanzanian shillings if the interviews take over four hours. That's about $2. We spent about an hour interviewing them.
I stuck to my guns, more or less, but didn't flat-out say no, debating it with my translator, and eventually one of the women said "BYE MUZUNGU!" and we left (that's the Swahili term used for white people).
As soon as I shut the car door, emotion took over reason and I started crying. They are so poor. It was nothing for me. Why shouldn't I give them money? Why is it any less ethical to give money to some women who need it for food or high school classes than to give cab fare to someone who wants to take a cab to a studio interview? Or to buy a beer for a source to try to make it more of a social occasion than an interview, and thereby ease the path to getting intel for a story?
The counter-argument is that it's not good to set the precedent of exchanging money for access to an interview, but for people in that kind of poverty, it doesn't seem to be as clear-cut as it would be if one were paying to gain an advantage like an exclusive interview. Maybe it should be the precedent, or at least an option. Who am I to decide that my ethics apply in a place where people can't afford to go to secondary school? Who then can't get decent jobs and can't afford to send their kids to secondary school either?
When I was in Rwanda nine years ago, a lot of organizations would give money to journalists who covered their press conferences. They claimed it was to cover expenses like transportation, but they also sent shuttles to pick up people from their newsrooms. I was shadowing someone and followed her into line, signed my name in a register and came away with...I think about the equivalent of $10. I was so horrified that I immediately donated that amount to a charity. I think that memory coloured my reaction the other day, firming my resolve. Later on, sitting in my lovely hotel room with a double-bed and electricity, and listening to a thunderstorm outside, that resolve washed away and left only guilt.