eatBCH: My views on the ethics of helping and reporting
I’m José, co-founder of the eatBCH project. After all the comments we have received with criticism, disdain, and hatred, I felt the need to write my own views on the matter.
I want to give special thanks to my brother Gabriel (the other eatBCH co-founder) for his assistance and inputs on this article.
I’ve always loved collecting stuff. One of my biggest passions is numismatics(the study and collecting of coins and paper money). I used to collect Happy Meals’ toys. I also collected Pokemon cards, Yu-gi-Oh! cards, and football albums. One of my precious achievements was the 2006 Germany World Cup album, it only had 6 stickers left(counting the Panini).
For the 2016 Euro Cup, I couldn’t afford the album even alone. Even less for coins, I just do the study part and look at coin auctions online for the pics.
I first heard about Bitcoin around 2012-2013, but I couldn’t afford any. I quickly dismissed it as simply something that I couldn’t ever use. Until January of this year when my brother Gabriel got tipped $2 in Bitcoin Cash (BCH). And suddenly I ‘got’ it: an anonymous person being able to send money to another anonymous person from God-knows-where anonymously. This was truly Magic Internet Money.
Imagine the place you live right now, the people around you, and you grow up with. That kid you used to play football with every week, or the other one who was the only one in the block that had a Nintendo 64 and you used to go there whenever possible. And seeing them now so skinny that you can see their bones sticking out. Hearing of a neighbor who passed out yesterday because she haven’t eaten anything for days. Even you own uncle.
Seeing people, old people break down in tears at the cashier because they simply did not have enough to buy the food and they knew they were going to spend all day without even a bite. Seeing people wait outside of meathouses, bakeries, food shops, restaurants not to buy- but to be the first dip of their trash. Seeing them pick out street plants and chew them just to have the feeling of eating something. Seeing those who knew since you were a child in these conditions gave us a sense of hopelessness, depression, and urgency.
My family used to do giveaway meals to strangers more than a year ago, but we had to stop because it got to the point hat we barely could afford to eat ourselves. Many days my whole lunch was a baked potato with salt. Nothing else. Even then, fortunately-or unfortunately- we were better off than many.
After a stranger I was chatting with knew I was Venezuelan, he offered $5 to help kickstart a food giveaway. He had previously contacted other Venezuelans but they refused because they were fleeing the country, too busy having 2-3 jobs, or worried of become another target of the rampant crime. Venezuela it’s one the most dangerous countries in the world. After feeling hopeless because of not having the means to help, I took the challenge.
My plan was to take pictures of our meal giveaway and send it to him privately, that plan went outside the window after the giveaway: we had too many pictures, and they were too large to send over email. I then thought of creating a twitter page, I thought it was a good alternative since then other who wanted to help could simply refer to it instead of me having to send emails to 1000 people.
I’ve always refused to call what we do a charity. It just doesn’t feel like it. The only reason I even picked a name for this project was because Twitter requires it.
Since a few days ago we have been receiving more exposure. Unfortunately, not all of it have been positive. I considered to reply to each person, but because there were so many comments, I couldn't have possible replied to all, specially within Twitter’s character constraints. So I decided to reply to all their main points in this article. Most of the criticism eatBCH have received so far can be divided in a few points. In the order of the most used criticism to the least:
1. Taking pictures or videos of people receiving aid is wrong.
2. Using a single currency is wrong.
3. Using the ticker symbol of a specific currency in our name is wrong
4. Converting the cryptocurrency to fiat to make purchases is wrong.
5. We haven’t been transparent enough.
Let’s start with the first one since it has been, surprisingly to us, the major reason for criticism:
1. Taking pictures or videos of people receiving aid it’s wrong.
I only wanted to talk here about the ethics of charitable aid and the collection of imagery of such aid being given. But instead, I want to make a bigger point: The ethics of photo and video journalism. It seems like some people distinguish between the two. They support the later but despise the former.
Taking pictures of war victims, hospital patients, and other human suffering it’s lauded. There are even awards given to the most choking and rawest ones. Taking pictures of those same victims receiving aid it’s frowned upon, despised, and criticized.
One critic was kind enough to hand us an essay to share his views on the use of imagery in charitable work. The essay, Selling the Distant Other: Humanitarianism and Imagery—Ethical Dilemmas of Humanitarian Action, makes a interesting point: pictures sells.
“Pictures of victims sell humanitarianism in ways that are potentially beneficial: they mediate distance, confront people with uncomfortable facts, and help bankroll intervention. At the same time, these images have powerful side effects: they sell suffering in ethically questionable ways, they perpetuate a humanitarian narrative in which Western aid organizations are empowered to act on and for “helpless” Southerners, and they fundamentally challenge basic humanitarian principles of humanity.
Selling pain and suffering are central to humanitarian fundraising.” [italics mine].
Although at first this might appear to make a compelling case, it uses a word that cannot be ignored: sell. In the whole essay, the idea of utilizing pain, misery, and suffering as means to showcase the target of a charitable campaign is not different than the utilization of a tasty hamburger by a fast-food restaurant. The point is selling. Images sells. Propaganda sells. A picture a hungry child is sold for money. A picture of a starving mother with her child is auctioned to the biggest bidder, not to appropriate her but to assist her. Charities sell the right to help them.
The writer continues with this idea, “Humanitarian images express the painful reality on the ground: many agencies feel an ethical duty to express what they see, as vividly as they are able.. Humanitarian organizations use abject images because they are effective to accomplish specific goals of raising awareness and funds. In short, suffering sells, and guilt compels.” [italics mine].
Apparently to the author, nothing shows. Instead, everything sells. But is this true? To consider that images are there to sell, and only to sell, instead to inform, is to denigrate the act of helping to mere commerce. Imagery sells, it’s true. But is that their only function? Of course not.
Imagery, most of all, informs. As a mean to communicate, imagery, primarily, gives content. The transmission of information is the key to any language. The sign approaches the viewer. What happens latter is the transmission of content. What you do with that content is a different issue. But images are there, independently if they later appear on billboards or not. But more importantly, the object of the image is there. As Wittgenstein said, “the limits of my language is the limit of my world”. And this exactly where images comes forward: to expand the limits of the viewer. Pictures have the ability to expand the world of the viewer. To perpetuate an instant and make it accessible to someone else is the essence of imagery. To showcase the unknown, to make accessible the inaccessible, to make the world smaller, as Denis Kennedy writes, is an essential act of the imagenries used by charities. And while charity utilizes it mainly to fundraise and gather the resources they need to assist a community in specific, there is another aspect that it is missing. And it is the act of accountability. And this is what we have been doing.
What Denis Kennedy is talking about is the fact that some charities use imagery of “pain and suffering” to plead to Westerners’ consciousness in order to gather their attention. It is the utilization of misery in exchange for wallets. While it is true that many charity do this, eatBCH have never done so. eatBCH have never used images to appeal directly to people to incite them to support us. Instead, our whole purpose of using images in our project was to account for our expenses, not to ask for funds.
When we started, we focused mostly on the food we were giving. The arepas, the soups, and all the process to make every meal instead of focusing on the receiver end. But later, some users criticized us and instead asked us to focus more on the people, instead of the food. So we started taking pictures of the men, women, and children, who happily and eagerly receive the meals. Today, this is the main reason for the continuous vicious attacks against the project. As a common Venezuelan saying goes, nobody is a gold coin to be loved by everyone.
We have never made pictures a precondition to receiving meals. We respect the privacy of each and every one. We ask their permission to take pictures and make it very clear that there is no need for them to be a subject if they don't feel like to.
Some of the people who have approached us in our Twitter page, have accused of taking the dignity of people or that it dehumanizes them, as also Denis Kennedy’s essay mentions several times. Nothing can be further from truth. We respect their privacy. We respect for their wishes. We don't give people in a mechanical, institutionalized, or depersonalized way. The meals are cooked by members of their own community and are delivered by them. It is not different than when a housewives bakes a cakes or an apple pie and warmly touches the door of her neighbor to give him some. It bonds all involved. A picture doesn't become a dehumanizing tool, but like a family picture.
Maybe it's a cultural thing. Maybe the crisis and all the situation changed us. But seeing someone eat in a picture doesn’t outrages us. Instead, it gives us joy and happiness in seeing or fellow eating a tasty meal, even if it's just for a day.
All charities and aid agencies take pictures. What’s then the difference? That they use HD expensive cameras, professional photographers, and editing?
2. Using a single cryptocurrency it’s wrong
Others criticize our use-and therefore acceptance- of a single cryptocurrency as unethical. They say that we shouldn’t “refuse” to accept any, we should accept them all. It would mean we would receive even more donations! It’s therefore evil to only accept one, we would then be refusing donations, and therefore refusing help, right?
I thought so the same in the beginning. In fact, we were thinking of using the name eatCryptos. But then settled on that simplicity could be something good in the future, and since our main choice was Bitcoin Cash, and I’m not the most creative person in the world, we picked eatBCH. I still firmly believe we made the right choice-maybe not with the name since it might be too alphabet-soupish- but with the sticking-to-a-single-cryptocurrency choice.
One of my goal with this was to be as decentralized as possible. To achieve that we would pick a responsible, honest person in a community and send him/her Bitcoin Cash so then he/she could use it or exchange it if they had to, and buy the food and make the meals at his/her community. The only conditions was to:
- Take pictures and/or videos with a timestamped note
- Send us a detailed report of the purchases
You would be surprised with the vast amount of cryptocurrencies people have asked to accept. Not only your Top 5 coins, but much more, up to coins listed in the 400th’s in CoinMarkeCapt.
The idea of then sending dozens of coins to a person for them to use was way to burdensome. Most Venezuelans have never ever used any cryptocurrency at all. They don’t know what’s a wallet, a private key, or seed words. The task of explaining them all of the necessary information takes more time than what I initially thought it would. And this is something that works best if it’s explain face-to-face. I sometimes can’t find the time to do this between the university. My free time is now almost non-existent. I can’t fathom how this would be if we had to deal with dozens of cryptocurrencies.
One thing I sometimes see it’s that the critics are not only complaining of our single-cryptocurrency acceptance per se, but of our use of BCH. I believe that if we accepted Bitcoin (BTC) only, like other charities have in the past, the amount of this criticism would be reduced by a nice margin.
3. Using the ticker symbol of a specific currency in our name it’s wrong
Some have questioned our use of the letter “BCH” in our name, but not for the same reason I have. They say it adds to the unethical-ness since then it’s a marketing campaign for a specific cryptocurrency. This all goes back in to our beginnings and why we chose Bitcoin Cash (BCH).
We were exposed to the world of cryptocurrencies in January of this year. The average fee of Bitcoin (BTC) was around $30-40 per transaction. The average monthly wage of a venezuelan was $5. An Ethereum tx fee was also a couple dollars’ worth, even Bitcoin fees were higher than BCH. We also looked into many other cryptocurrencies: Monero, Zcash, Nano(It was called Raiblocks back then) and more. They had fees higher than Bitcoin Cash, were not supported by the couple of online exchanges still working in Venezuela, or a small community here(which would make the chance of overall acceptance of it by merchants nationwide worse). Bitcoin Cash had a plus that other coins didn’t: the commitment to being universal cash with fees as low possible. We still spend about a month reading and searching what coin to use, that’s one of the reason our first meal was in February. One of my regrets it’s not starting sooner.
The reason why we use “BCH” in our name is because we are not the most creative ones in the bunch. To be honest the name or the logo we would use was the least of our worries. We wanted something simple and that would explain ourselves. We thought that using the ticker also would give information for those that wanted to donate and how they could do so.
If we had a name like “Meals”, there wouldn’t be obvious on how they could donate.
4. Converting cryptocurrency into fiat to make purchases it’s wrong
This is another issue. Many have complained that we right now have to to exchange BCH into our local fiat in order to operate and mistakenly think that this is what we have always intended to operate. Nothing can be further from the truth.
Since our beginning, we have talked with dozens of merchants to accept payments in Bitcoin Cash. But the fact is that the situation in the country is different than in other parts of the world. The vast majority have voiced us that they don’t have the privilege of risking to enter in such a volatile environment. While this could mean a profit for them, the mere fact that it could entail a loss which they couldn't prevent is a big issue. We have been talking and educating them in cryptocurrencies, slowly but surely. Many already are certainly more open-minded than before, but there is still work to do. We don’t plan to continue simply to exchange to fiat. We want all of them to see the benefits in embracing cryptocurrency. And not simply for them, but also because it would make our work much easier.
One thing some people fail to understand it’s that Venezuela right now it’s not like their countries. It’s already extremely hard to even talk to a store owner. They are virtually never at their stores, and their employees do not give any of their contact information because of security concerns. Those few that were there didn’t want to get involved with any crypto since they say they don’t want to risk being persecuted by the government, or just want to stay within the status quo as quietly as possible.
They simply say their risks are much higher than what would they gain: one customer.
We are always onboarding merchants when we find them, even at the risk of exposing ourselves to an evil third party eavesdropping or something along those lines.
Other have shown their concern that using bank accounts could pose a risk to our safety since it’s all government controlled. But they fail to understand that going door-to-door and asking all stores we can find in our communities for them to accept cryptocurrencies also pose a physical risk-higher than using a bank account could bring right now- since it would mean physically exposing ourselves as someone who owns cryptocurrency, and in their eyes, someone who is possible wealthy.
Other say to use already existing vehicles instead of using cryptocurrency, like a bank account to receive USD directly and wait until merchants accept cryptos here. This is impossible, in Venezuela it’s realistically not possible to have a USD bank account, all bank accounts have to be in our local currency, the Bolivar Fuerte (VEF). There are “USD accounts” but as soon you receive the USD they are automatically converted to VEF, in a extremely low exchange rate. To get a bank account that supports other currency is to open an offshore account. And we don’t plan to do that since then all other responsible people of each community have to do it too, making it cost-prohibiting.
Other say to use Paypal then, but it’s also an impossibility. Paypal requires a USD-filled credit card for verification. And as I said, you can’t have a USD bank account here, much less a USD credit card.
Some have voiced the concern of us converting the BCH donations to VEF since it could be a redflag to bank and government officials to track us down. But we are only converting on demand, according to our needs. Our holding funds are in BCH.
One plus side of having a person responsible for each community it’s that they are in charge of exchanging to their account themselves, so it’s not like we exchange it all to my bank account and then send that to all other locations from it.
When I started eatBCH I didn’t even knew how to exchange it to fiat. I had to use my own VEF funds to buy the food.
There was/is a sense of urgency. I couldn’t wait any longer, I couldn’t sit and make a master plan on how are we going to project this in 7 years, or making a ICO for this, foodCoin or eatCoin. I had to act as soon as possible.
Later on I learned how to exchanged it, joined cryptocurrencies communities in the country, and found out people here willing to buy it if I ever had to sell some.
We recently convinced a car dealership to accept BCH. It wasn’t easy. I had to travel to 4 cities, visited about a dozen of car dealerships, had meetings with a couple owners for weeks. Only one accepted, and that because he was eager to get into cryptocurrencies -and probably eager to make a sell by then-.
We’re still onboarding others. Even if we find one in a city, doesn’t mean all eatBCH will be served. We have over a dozen of locations in 3 different States. But I believe cryptocurrencies wont fade away tomorrow. We’re here for the long run.
5. We haven’t been transparent enough
This is simply the argument that makes the less sense to us. Being one of the first charity solely powered with blockchain technology is something that makes us proud. What other charity have their donations, all their ins and out in a public address for everyone to see?
Even with this in our beginnings many asked to show images of people receiving the aid in order as another proof that we were actually helping those in need. Who would have thought that a few months later, others would criticize us for this.
We don’t only have done this couple of things, but we also try to publish every month a balance sheet explaining all of our outs. Something that wasn’t even on the table in our beginnings.
We still appreciate all the constructive advices we’ve received. Anything that can make us improve even just a little it’s received with open arms.
Maybe we are at a point in which we no longer need to post pictures of people receiving food in order for them to believe we are actually doing what we are supposed to do. I sure hope that if we stop posting pictures then those who criticize us will give us their support. Or would they complain that there’s no proof of our work at all?
Taking pictures and videos of those receiving relief it’s not dehumanizing, or undignifying.
The best way to show people in their full dignity, humanity, autonomy, and with full integrity it’s by showing them as a whole person. Not as a headless body, a blurred human being, a chart, as data, or a number.
If those images brings any discomfort to the viewer, the fault it’s on the viewer, and your predispositions, internalized issues, and judgements. They are not less humans because they’re suffering or are the victims of something.
Demanding them to hide themselves, being hidden, or simply ignored, it’s the opposite of savekeeping their dignity or humanity.
It is their humanity that makes others want to help them.
Where were all the other big household-named charities in our communities? Are they withholding their help due to the fear of backlash of those few people who don’t even need aid? Or are the NGOs directed by those who think like them? Could aid be a much larger and much more common occurrence in our world if it weren’t up to them, the critics? Could aid be a much larger and more common occurrence with the use of peer-to-peer electronic cash?
Thank God bitcoin is permissionless.
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