Ford Ranger or Sport Trac? What kind of Advocate for the Poor are You?

There is a lively and nuanced discussion of the comfort levels chosen by development practitioners in the field.  How flying business instead of coach and/or having access to a pool and gated communities can improve the efficiency and effectiveness of short stints in the field, reduce burn out, and/or improve safety. How chosen comfort levels can sharpen pre-existing inequalities between ourselves and community members and possibly undermine our effectiveness.

So far, the discussion has centered on the chosen comfort levels of practitioners in the field. What about at home?

For years, I drove a stripped-down white Ford Ranger that could easily blend in with any fleet of local government vehicles. The Ranger is the one and only true compact truck on the market. The end of its life just happened to coincide with the university’s decision to grant me tenure. The opportunity to buy the truck I always wanted had arrived (Ford Explorer Sport Trac with a power-slide window). 

While I was actively in the car market, I was also reading Peter Singer’s “One World”. According to Singer, the opportunity cost of every dollar spent on unessential consumption is denominated in the life of a child ensnared in poverty. Singer’s argument assumes away a lot of complexity but is nonetheless compelling.

I vacillated for weeks about what to do – another Ranger or the Sport Trac. In addition to Singer’s argument, two other issues arose: 

1. Here at TDC we firmly believe that empathy and humility are the starting points for making a difference in global poverty. Through the exercise of empathy and humility, we believe that common ground can be built between ourselves and communities abroad.  It is upon that common ground that a mutually beneficial partnership can grow.  Is there a connection between our chosen consumption patterns and comfort levels at home and our ability to find that common ground?

2. As one of my students pointed out – there is an expectation that advocates for ending global poverty will not engage in conspicuous consumption.  Otherwise, their credibility to lead and inspire would be undermined. Is there a connection between our chosen consumption patterns and comfort levels at home and our ability to inspire and lead a movement to end global poverty?

I bought the Sport Trac.

In the end a number of personal variables trumped Singer’s argument – including being a father, dog owner, a gardener and having to commute on highway 95.  And, honestly, I was in my late 30s and had never driven anything other than a Ranger.  I bought it because I wanted it.  However, as I am always quick to point out to my students, I bought it used and it has no power slide window!  Now, whether that is a result of Peter Singer’s influence or the family budget…well, it was both.

How did my choice impact my ability to effectively engage community members and inspire and lead?

I do not believe that either was adversely impacted.  Why? I made a selfish choice.  I know it and I use that choice to remind myself that I am nothing special.   I have also decided to use this choice as an opportunity to teach and explore the issues above.

As part of that exploration, we must ask, at what point, if any, would either or both have eroded? What if I had purchased an Acura, a Cadillac, or a BMW?


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