Choice vs Risk

If you have ever taken a 100 or 200 level International Development course with Dr. Larry Swatuk you will know that development = maximizing choice and minimizing risk. The cycle of poverty puts people in between a rock and a hard place. It forces people to do what they would not do under ‘normal’ (whatever that means) circumstances – usually in pursuit of their own, and their family’s life.

Drugs of all kinds are a daily fact of life in the favelas of Brazil. A Channel 4 news reporter wanted to meet the individual providing much of the community with these drugs. To his surprise it was a middle-aged mother of three. She sells everything from glue to crack-cocaine.

When asked about her clientele she says age doesn’t matter. She sells to everyone. Later on, however, between tears she says that she often turns down the young kids asking for crack-cocaine because all she can think about is someone else doing that to her kids. She couldn’t imagine someone selling drugs to her children therefore she can’t do that to someone else’s child.

This mother of three says that the very drug she sells to feed her children is “the devil’s drug. It came for three reasons: to kill, to steal, to destroy.” She is between a rock and a hard place; her risk of not being able to provide is high and her choices to diversify means of provision are limited.

Choice is something us Westerners seriously take for granted. I’m not much of a foodie so I always remark when others can discuss food (I mean cupcake flavours, not the unequal distribution of food resources in corrupt countries, for example) for a sustained period of time. Some days I feel like our (Westerners’) largest daily dilemma is if we should get the main entrée or just a burger for dinner. I mean, the Watson’s Eatery (the cafeteria here at the St. Paul’s University College) menu gets taken seriously here, folks.

I’m not saying it’s bad to discuss or care about what we will eat. I think it is a sign of a healthy relationship with food, which is very important. But I think we take our choices for granted and in that, can lose sight of the realities of the world that we live in. As much as I’d like to, I cannot change the global risk versus choice equation to eliminate poverty. But, I can be aware of them and at least for the rest of the day be absolutely grateful for the choices I have at my fingertips and the minimum risks I have to take to attain them.

What’s the ‘riskiest’ thing you’ve done lately?

…Post script: I can’t help but remark how even this question exposes how much choice I have because I was going to use the word today instead of lately, but thought “that’s too often, we don’t have to expose ourselves to significant risk everyday!

…Much of the 100% does.

A Guarani child embraces a dead rat.

A Guarani child embraces a dead rat.



  1. Well M. This is the defining question of development discourse, isn’t it – is development the construction of a road, or is it the freedom of choice? I fully agree with Amartya Sen that development is freedom, the freedom to choose and all of the hidden connotations within that choice. The most high-risk choice I’ve made in the past week? Who knows.


    1. Thanks Corey! I agree with you about Sen, I have yet to find a better summarizing statement about development than his. As anything good, freedom can be misused but I think it’s a much better alternative to our current global situation. The riskiest thing I did today was probably drive a car.


  2. Wow, it opens my eyes and breaks my heart to hear the story about that woman. It raises the question of choice and who really has choice? One could judge that woman and say she chose to sell hard drugs in the favelas, but the choice between that and starvation is not much of a choice. Meanwhile, I stress myself over choosing what to wear each morning, or what homework assignment to tackle first, as I enjoy first world comforts and education which is giving me endless opportunities. Really makes me think, and motivates me to look outside of my life and find out how to help people in dark circumstances – getting me more excited for placement!!


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