Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Dr. Francis Smith

Contributed by Dr. Francis Smith of Belize
In this oped, Dr. Smith takes an incisive look at Belize’s Kim Simpliss-Barrow and her purported philanthropic work as “Special Envoy for Women and Children”.

Abraham Harold Maslow, in 1954, theorized that there are five interdependent levels of basic human needs (or motivators). The first, most pressing, and lowest needs on the list are the physiological needs to stay alive with food and water, to reproduce, and to feel safe and secure. No other need is important if these basic needs are not met. They are followed by social needs for love, belonging, self-esteem, to feel worthy, respected, and to have status in society. At the highest level are self-actualization needs of self-fulfillment and achievement.

Belize’s socialites, lead by First Lady, Mrs. Kim Simplis Barrow provide a good case study at the level of Maslow’s social needs for love, belonging, self-esteem, the need to feel respected and to have social and celebrity status. Modern socialites have an insatiable need for status, and philanthropy is the new status symbol. According to The New York Times, socialites spend between $98,000 (U.S.dollars) and $455,000 U.S. per year to maintain their roles. Just the evening wardrobe of an individual regularly attending society functions can cost $100,000 annually. Most times these designer clothes and handbags are made in sweatshops overseas, by women and children, denied living wages.

A perusal of the internet reveals an abundance of pictures of Mrs. Kim Simplis Barrow in her role as Belize’s foremost celebrity and philanthropist. There is a plethora of scripted interviews on the Huffington Post website, Complexd Woman, and other sites, and submitted articles purporting that Lifeline Foundation is the “most acclaimed NGO” in Belize, creating an impression that the Special Envoy is the greatest known benefactor of women and children in Belize.



The kind of media hype tends to undermine the efforts of hardworking, ordinary people working for Belize’s longstanding and essential NGO’s. BFLA, Hand in Hand ministries, Youth Enhancement Services(YES), YMCA, YWCA, Red Cross, BCVI, Toledo Maya Women’s Association, B.E.R.T., and a hundred other NGO’s compete unfairly, with the Prime Minister’s wife, for increasingly scarce funds. The First Lady is hailed as a champion in the fight against cancer which landed her on the cover of the Women of Strength issue of Complexd Woman online magazine. In contrast, Juliet Soberanis, founder of the Belize Cancer Society (and founding member of the National Organization for Prevention of Child Abuse), remains inconspicuous, in the shadow of Mrs. Barrow.

There are numerous role models in Belize who provide examples of Maslow’s highest level of self-actualization. Former first ladies, Mrs. Joan Musa, who dedicated a life time to BCVI, and Mrs. Kathy Esquivel, first president of the National Women’s Commission,( and former chair of the National Aids Commission), are good examples of women who led selfless lives of public service, without taking a photo for every charitable deed. There are Jesuit educators, Pallottine Nuns, Joan Burke of BFLA, Yvette Burke of BERT, Sister Elsa Oliva of Stella Maris, countless men and women who have dedicated their whole lives to the public service throughout Belize.
Charles Dickens harshly criticized those “do-gooders” whose so called “philanthropy” served their vanity rather than the poor. In Bleak House, Dickens describes Mrs. Pardiggle with her rapacious benevolence, the predecessor of our modern socialites and our First Lady of Bling.

Pope Francis and other religious leaders are increasingly denouncing the global financial system, the deified market that tyrannizes the poor, turning humans into expendable consumer goods. Mrs. Barrow is the first lady of a developing country and she is sending the wrong signals with her lifestyle example. There is a subtle implication that ordinary citizens are unsophisticated, uncouth, and classless nobodies, unless featured on the world-wide web and international glamour magazines, attend lavish “fund-raising” galas, or attend her “obligatory for public servants” 20,000 strong political rallies. She flaunts a lifestyle of lavish spending on goods and services for the sole purpose of social status, a behavior social scientist Thorstein Veblen, termed “conspicuous consumption”. The very conspicuous Special Envoy introduces lifestyle envy to Belize, promoting lifestyle norms well beyond our incomes by promoting the lifestyles of the rich and famous as superior and enviable.

In Belize, poverty and inequality is growing, despite the rise in GDP and other economic growth indicators. This is because of an unsustainable debt-led, consumption promoting and import-intensive economic growth strategy. We live in a global financial system which is a Ponzi scheme. It promotes infinite growth, infinite profits and infinite consumption. Mainstream media and commercial advertising subtly persuades us to desire what we don’t need. It promotes excessive consumption which leads to the acquiring of status symbols: bigger houses, more expensive cars, Hummers, designer clothing, Apple computers, the latest I-phone, I-pods, and overfilled drawers.

To live is to consume, but excessive consumerism crosses boundaries, affecting the needs of others. The Inspiration Centre is a multi-million dollar complex built with private and public funds. It was not a donation from Kim Kardashian or Angelina Jolie. It will require a budget with operating expenses, repairs and maintenance, insurance, salaries, social security, equipment and assets, telephone, water and electricity bills which is unsustainable, if managed by any NGO dedicated to the rehabilitation of special needs children. The Inspiration Centre is a “dream satisfied”, proof of superior status, and, an example of excessive consumerism that crosses boundaries affecting funds available for Stella Maris and the Special Education Unit, the Karl Heusner Memorial Hospital, BFLA, and other bona fide NGO’s in Belize.

If we are to improve domestic capacity and Belize’s track record of development, then we must unsubscribe from the unsustainable lifestyles proffered by our local wannabe’s, self-constructed attempts at celebrity at the expense of the public purse. If we are to increase trust and cohesiveness in our Belizean society then we must embrace the examples of our numerous Belizeans, who without public adulation and self-flattery, eke out a miserable but self-fulfilling existence with meager pay, in schools, hospitals, public service facilities, and NGO’s throughout the country. These are ordinary people with uncommon grace, kindness, generosity, benevolence and compassion despite the most undesirable working conditions, who provide us with an example of Maslow’s highest level of self-actualization.