July 8, 2009

Can I borrow Twenty Dollars? – Lending money and ethics in research….

Conducting research with people who face economic hardship, you can expect that at some point, people will ask to borrow money. At that point, you have to decide how to respond. It is never an easy decision.

When I was conducting research for my dissertation on people of African descent in Peru, villagers occasionally asked me for money. Sometimes it would be to contribute money to a cause such as the Parents’ Association at the school. Other times it would be to travel to Lima or to pay for medicine. As a graduate student, I had a stipend of about US$1,000 per month. This was much more than anyone in the village earned, yet it was just enough for us to get by and pay for my research-related expenses. At the time, I was supporting myself, my husband, and my three children. In response to these requests, I usually gave people small amounts of money, and said no to larger requests.

One of my strategies in dealing with requests for cash is to lend money to people when they ask for small amounts. I know they will not pay me back, so I take that into account when I lend. However, their not having paid me back serves as a deterrent to them asking me for larger loans in the future. And, if they do, I simply point out that they never paid back the first loan. This also works well in other situations. I once had a neighbor in Kansas who spent most of her money on crack. I was pleased when she asked me to loan her $5.00, as I knew she wouldn’t pay me back, and that I could ward off all future requests by giving her the five bucks. Next time she came to ask me for $20 to buy food, I gave her some rice and beans, and said I couldn’t lend her any more money. She never asked for money again, and our neighborly relationship did not sour.

I have been in Kingston for just over one month, and have had two requests for assistance so far. The first one was from a deportee who has agreed to be my research assistant, yet we have yet to work together. He called me and asked me to send him US$20, as he had run out of funds for the month. I told him I would send him the money, but that he should consider it an advance for work he is supposed to do for me. He agreed that he would do the work, and that I would pay him the balance later.

This morning, my phone rang just before 7am. It was Dwayne, a deportee Nando introduced me to the other day. He called to tell me that he has a job interview on the other side of town, but doesn’t have gas money to get there. He wanted to borrow JA $500 – about US $6.00.

As he was telling me his story, I thought about whether or not I should give it to him. On the one hand, he could be lying and could want the money for drugs. If that were the case, I would be out six dollars, and would be supporting a drug habit. On the other hand, he might be telling the truth, and if I said no, I could jeopardize his chances of getting this job.

I have not yet formally interviewed him. So, giving him money might alter our relationship, and make it more difficult for him to give me an honest interview.

In the end, I decided to give him the JA $500. When I gave it to him, I told him that if he is lying, that he please not contact me again. If he is telling the truth, however, he should call me so that we can do the interview. At the interview, I will give him JA $300, the balance of what I pay interviewees for their transportation costs. He assured me he wasn’t lying and that he would call me later.

I think this will work out. Worst case scenario is I lose six bucks and a potential interviewee. Best case scenario is that he gets the job and agrees to do the interview.

What I can be sure of is that requests such as these will continue to come in, and that I will have to decide how to handle them. I have more resources now than I did as a graduate student. Nevertheless, my resources are not unlimited, and I know I can’t save the world by giving money to everyone who asks. However, perhaps I can make a small difference in some people’s lives by being judicious with my resources.


  1. This is a great post. I feel like I really learned something; your technique of lending small amounts is quite smart. Thanks for writing about it.

  2. Thanks for reading! I am glad I wrote about it so I can remember what to do next time!