Economics in Service: Practical Economics and Serving the Poor in El Salvador

These simple stair steps made from salvaged tires improve the structure of the eroded hillside and make safer passage for those walking through.  

As we learn the terrain of El Salvador topographically, we are also learning it culturally and economically.   We must consistently evaluate the moments in which we find ourselves, and locate the origin and significance of observations we make.  El Salvador is a country whose population’s economic situation is dramatically stratified.  The more stories we hear and the more facts we find, the more we are seeing the economic injustice that exists.  From the complexities of a dollarized economy to countless people working for far less than what little is considered ‘minimum’, at every turn there is an economic dilemma.

During a recent service project, we were faced with a series of situations that revealed one of the economic tensions encountered in our efforts to bring holistic change, moment by moment, here in El Salvador.  The project involved facilitating a group of 10 volunteers in a three-fold day of service to  the community of Milagro de Dios. The day’s plans included roof repair, basic sanitation construction, and a public works erosion control project.

For the erosion control project, we intended to use irreparable tires, re-purposing useless tires in a  way that serves the community’s need for erosion prevention as well as safe walkways.  That morning, with volunteers on-site and ready to work, our team members responsible for acquiring the tires, which were usually available nearby free of charge, could not find any tires for the project. As the minutes ticked by, volunteer hours slipping away, visiting tire shop after tire shop, further and further away from Milagro de Dios, they searched for the crucial element of this project: free tires.

As the search continued, other options were considered.  For the sake of time and volunteer hours, the more expensive option of purchasing usable, but still used, tires for $10 each was an option.  Yet, the project required a minimum of 8 tires, resulting in at least $80 of unexpected expense.  While this expense, in some ways, may seem minimal, the contrasting reality is that $80 is more than an average Salvadorian’s income for an entire week.

In this particular case, how would that kind of expense be received by the family we were serving?  And by the surrounding community of displaced people, living in homes made of plastic sheeting, cardboard, worn sheet metal, bamboo, and rope?  Would our ‘service’ quickly become a burden to our friends, who would be painfully aware of their inability to reciprocate such service?  Could our desire to complete the project inadvertently create a relational dilemma?   Would the tires soon be uprooted and resold, perhaps used on a vehicle in need?  The thought of usable tires being utilized as steps in this impoverished community is outrageous.  It would have been embarrassing for this family to know we spent over a week's wage on a product that, given one more hour, could have been received free of charge.

As the questions and tension mounted, we could only pray, knowing that our behavior in these moments defines who we are to our Salvadorian friends.  Would we forge ahead, and use our access to wealth at every turn? Or would we learn to wait, be patient, and to carefully consider the complexities of our service?

Finally, after much searching, we found a shop that had 3 tires we could use.  The next had seven.  Once we had obtained 10 tires, we began to return to Milagro de Dios, but then decided to try just one more shop where we were given 9 more tires!

Through patience, perseverance, and prayer, we found what was needed, and we found it in abundance - more than twice as many as the ’minimum’ of 8 we had projected.  We were able to complete the project, despite the morning spent searching for tires, and we did this without resorting to the wealth that lurks at the tips of our fingers.  We were not only able to complete our original plans, but we used the extra tires to fill in a newly eroded hole alongside a community bridge, which had created a safety hazard.

The day of service in Milagro de Dios was a huge success!  The projects were finished, relationships were strengthened,  and priceless lessons were learned in our pursuit of lives that embody an ethic that questions affluent methods and mindsets.  We are thankful for each day we have here in El Salvador.  As we continue to press toward the actualization of our vocations here, we embrace moments like the project in Milagro de Dios to sharpen and strengthen us.

By: Cadle Edwards and Michael Davis