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A View From the Roof: International Living Special Projects Editor Comments on “Expat Over-Generosity”

Dear Readers, a-view-from-the-roof-photo-

My “View from the Roof” column about the negative impact of expat over-generosity generated more comments than any column we have written.

The article below is a response to that post by part-time Cotacachi resident Dan Prescher, whois a special projects editor for International Living.

Because of Dan’s long experience with living internationally, I decided to let him have the driver’s seat in this week’s “A View From the Roof.”  Please read what Dan has to say, because it is an incredibly important topic for anyone living or contemplating living in Latin America, and he says it beautifully.

For Dan to contribute to  “A View from the Roof,” is very legitimate because Dan and his wife Susan also live in a beautiful penthouse apartment here in Cotacachi’s Primavera II condominiums.  In fact, he has one of the best views in the city. So take it away, Dan……

By Dan Prescher
Special Projects Editor, International Living

I’ve worked for International Living for 10 years. We’ve been responsible, directly or indirectly, for lots of folks moving full- or part-time to various places in Latin America. And we’ve written about the effects that these folks and their money and attitudes have on local populations.

After watching this process for a decade, one theme keeps recurring: North Americans with money simply cannot believe that South Americans without money can possibly be happy.

I’ve seen it hundreds of times — North Americans move abroad and send back glowing reports about the locals being so simple, so happy, so unspoiled.

At exactly the same time, they report how heavy their hearts are that the locals are so poor, so lacking in the goods and services that “we take for granted”.

In true North American style, they simply cannot believe that poor people can be happy people… despite the evidence of their own eyes.

Even stranger, in many cases these same North Americans moved abroad in the first place specifically to simply their lives and escape North American consumerism and materialism.

So what do they do? They proceed to try to buy happiness for their adopted community… a community they adopted precisely because is was so happy, simple, and unspoiled in the first place.

They overpay their help. They over tip in restaurants. They refuse to haggle at the market. They give money to strangers on the street. They choose a family at random and start buying them food, clothes, school tuition. They raise large sums of money for the especially needy, ambitious, smart, pitiful, cute, etc. etc.

Their hearts seem to be in the right place… after all, “we have so much and they have so little”. But having much isn’t the same as being happy, and having little isn’t the same as being miserable — despite our North American consumer training.

And the result of all this good-hearted “helping” is predictable… initial local gratitude quickly turns into rising expectations, rising prices, rising jealousy, rising dissatisfaction, rising resentment, rising greed, rising crime.

There are dozens of excellent reasons for North Americans to move abroad. However, I’d love to come up with some way to keep those folks from catching the urge to “help” the local community once they move.

In most cases, what they really mean by helping their adopted community is dispensing money to make it more like the place they came from. And once you’ve unsimplified, dissatisfied, and spoiled a local population with your money, you’ve not only ruined a once-happy community… you’ve lost the very thing you moved for.

And that’s today’s “View from the Roof.

Thanks Dan.

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34 Comments

  1. Eunice Howe says:

    Hi:
    I am a new resident to Cotacachi, who sees an entirely different scene!
    I see poor people, that need help…..I see children, in need of funds to advance them to High School….
    I see “Gringos”….sitting around, complaining, doing absolutely nothing to help in their “New Community”…
    There are two sides to every story, and, this is mine!\
    I believe that we,as ex-pats, can do great things in our new home, so, please extend a hand, whereever it is needed…..there are many of you now, here in Cotacachi, who besides, building huge homes…could take a good look around, and make a little difference in the lives of the people that we live amongst!
    If you are not prepared to help in your community..perhaps, you should move onto some place else!

  2. Starr A. Wilson says:

    I own an island along with my twin sister who has nothing to do with it or my father’s widow and her family. We have had a 40-year history with the Mestizo indians who live in the islands and my father was “part of the family”. I am presently paying for tuition for my father’s adopted daughter, her two preschoolers and three cousins, with the deal that once they are through school and working that they help the other children in the family through school as well.

    My father lived the “simple” lifestyle because he was living off of SSI, his life’s savings (over $300,000) had been stolen out of the bank by the Sandistas during the war, and his SSI didn’t go far after. The present wife is developmentally disabled and refuses to work. The adopted daughter is lazy and wouldn’t work or go to school. People in the family tried talking to them and they wouldn’t listen.

    I had to go down and move things along, with the support of the preschool teacher and the family. The entire family is helping maintain these young adults by providing boat transportation, child care and their meals while they go to school. The children go mornings, the adults go one weekend day each week, the boys on Saturday, the girls on Sunday. The adult children are expected to work one way or another either foraging for food for sale in the local market or work a low-skill-level job to their ability in town.

    The Mestizo Indians hate the North Americans that come to town and take every opportunity to overcharge them like $15 to ride the boat to the island (one way) where on the native’s boats it’s C50. Plus even to me, a North American, the new ex-pats are extremely rude. So Americans are creating this sad scenario. We are seen as targets because we have “money” and because of that I and a friend were robbed at gun point and knife point in Managua.

    There are expats that carry guns when they are out and about for their own safety. I mean even in my own home on the island, anything that is laid out is stolen and of course no one admits they took anything. The children want to learn English because they want handouts. It’s very sad to see this happening. An American bought an island “down the street” from us and built a house in the round, three stories, with the upper story a “classroom” to teach English when the local population is totally illiterate in their own language.

    My father taught two brothers of his widow journeyman skills and both men make their living doing carpentry and/or hardscape work, their children have attended the local island school and read and write and the two adult children are the ones now in university that I spoke of earlier. The progress has been slow and gradual and the family is extremely tight knit and true to Indian culture, you make a promise, you keep it.

  3. It makes perfect sense. I hope that the North Americans living in Cotacachi don’t turn it into Boquete, or Costa Rica, or any of the other places that those same North American expats are “forced” to leave because the cost of living got too high for them in their new adopted homelands.

  4. praise the lord DAN!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! says:

    that comment by Dan was Huge with experience and right on the truth

  5. a very interesting article, and on a subject that would never have occurred to me. it will help me be a better expat, when i become one. thanks for taking the time. ggp

  6. Will Miller says:

    Your publication and you so mistated the economic reality on insider presale ´´opportunities´´ in Forteleza, Brazil, no one should consider you credible. I called you and the Brazilian attorney on what a USD and REAL shift would do to people´s investments and the answer was ´´We don´t take those aspects into consideration´´ Duh?
    You get a healthy cut on any project you promote ´´according to my inside sources´´
    Quit feeding on the world and go back to where you came from.

  7. I am an expat living in Chie, I live at the “gringo” location here in La Serena. A 3 br ,2 bath apartment on the beach costs about $160,000. But the locals can buy a 3 br 2 bath home in the city for less than $50,000. I also recently visited Cotacacci, and was shocked at the prices being qouted for a home on the outskirts of town. Yes the view was beautiful, and the shopping for leather was excellent, but there is little more to do in Cotacacci. If you truly want to retire, at 2,600 meters, Cotacacci may be the place for you, but be careful in choosing a price to pay for a home, or you will spoil the experience for every one

  8. Margaret Nemet says:

    I am so glad this topic was raised. I live in Cotacachi in the summer, and spend winters in Vieques, Puerto Rico where the full effects of expatriation, mainly from North America, are sadly, all too evident. Real estate is unaffordable to locals which understandably has created deep resentment.

    There is a two tier pay scale for goods and services: one for the rich and stupid Gringos and one for the locals. A few of examples: Tariffs for the local form of public transportation, the “publicos” (small passenger vans) are regulated by the government. The Gringos are expected and indeed asked, to pay more. If one does not pay more, resentment follows. Suitcases on the rare public buses (the capital, San Juan) are not allowed, indeed banned, in order to discourage the Gringos from riding the bus to the Airport, because they have money.

    The litany can go on forever. It makes it more difficult to be an expat here for me, than in the USA, where I was an expat from the world’s apart environs of impoverished, Communist Eastern Europe. I personally never had money to throw around in Ecuador or in Vieques for whatever reason, which marks me as unkind, unfeeling and cheap to locals and to many “native” Americans. Too bad.

    There is enough misery in my own family back in Eastern Europe to throw many at, but I refrain from that too, because it creates envy and resentment. Expats of Cotacachi come and talk to me before the urge to spread your money around hits you. I have plenty of sad examples of what money given to people can do.

  9. Lee Campbell says:

    Thanks Dan,
    You are truly someone who understands the harm the “do gooders” spread where ever they go. They just can not accept that people can be happy unless they live like the expats. You hit the nail on the head. This is a great article, too bad the ones who need to heed it probably won’t read it, let alone change their attitude.

  10. Heather McConnell says:

    And the next thing that happens is the locals ask you for money outright or raise their prices, just for you. And new expats coming to your town wonder where all the bargains went. The belief is that, expats can afford to lose a few hundred or thousand here or there, because they don’t really feel it. Even expat to expat relationships may be largely built on money being made. Those who “speculated” on property and got here first now want to get the new expats to pay them a huge profit on their land speculations. But wait, isn’t that what Int’l Lvg preaches to its investors? So – now Dan and Gary, where did this all start out?

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