Thursday, January 29, 2015

World peace, an end to poverty, and less garbage

Day after Christmas at Las Penitas beach
     Were it up to me to pick a project for Central America, it might be garbage.
    In countries with per-capita GDPs somewhere around $4,000, sub-standard education systems and virtually zero social services, I admit that garbage is not the most pressing problem.
    But it's the kind of project that is wide open to all ages and classes, in urban and rural areas alike. It provides instant gratification, and possibly economic stimulus as well if you pay attention to which types of garbage have value and set up side projects along the way. (I dream of bringing Vancouver's Ken Lyotier to the region to help the impoverished recyclers here improve their systems.)
      It's a perfect project for involving young people, offering the potential for a major change in habits and a much-improved environment in only one generation. Once habits are changed, they stay changed, meaning it's also a project that you can do once and as long as you're thorough in the execution, it stays done.
     Plus if this lovely part of the world ever hopes to really get things going around tourism, they're simply going to have to stop throwing their garbage all over the place. It was truly sad to wake up at our little Pacific Coast getaway at Las Penitas beach the day after Christmas and see a thousand styrofoam coffee cups, food containers and little plastic bags washing out to sea and strewn all over what had been a pristine area just 24 hours earlier.
    Garbage cleanups also lend themselves to developing a spirit of volunteerism. Kids from local schools could become stewards of a certain number of blocks around their schools, led around by socially minded locals to do routine cleanups while getting educated about the harm that garbage can cause. Meanwhile, they go home and lean on their parents about not just chucking their chip bags and empty Coke bottles into the street. At least, that's the hope.
     Of course, no one's going to get a high-cost blue box campaign going on in a country like Nicaragua, or implement posh, odor-free landfills with elaborate systems for capturing methane gas like the one in my home town of Victoria.
     But just bringing all the garbage together in one designated spot would be a big step forward. As it is, it just seems to spill out all over the place here. Somebody dumps a couple of bags somewhere at the side of the road and everybody takes it as a licence to dump more. Add in hungry dogs, opportunistic turkey vultures, and people who eke out a living selling what other people throw away, and it gets ugly fast.
    There is a very good network of recyclers hard at work already in Managua, as I'm reminded every
Beach on Utila Island, Honduras, that's a
magnet for garbage brought in by the sea
garbage day when five or six different people pulling wheeled carts pass by our house looking for aluminum cans, plastic bottles and anything else that has enough value to either resell or remake into something useful for their families. I watched one guy spend at least 10 minutes whacking a big piece of concrete construction waste with a mallet to free up the wire framework inside, which he was presumably going to sell to a metal recycler.
     Judging by how poor the recyclers seem to be, it doesn't appear to be a line of work that pays well. But there's potential there as well - to find additional markets, to outfit them with better carts so they could cover more territory, to get Managuans separating their garbage from the outset instead of leaving it to the recyclers to tear apart bags on the street and inevitably contribute to the mess.
     Municipalities need to get much more involved for this plan to work, of course. For one thing, you can go a long way without ever seeing a public garbage can in Central American towns, and that's going to have to change. Plus there has to be enough in the municipal budget to pay someone to empty those cans, or otherwise you'll end up with the problem we saw in Copan Ruinas throughout our time there, where the overstuffed, reeking garbage cans in the town park attracted flies and stray dogs. You also need a municipal commitment to pick up garbage in all the neighbourhoods, not just the richer ones. That stuff really travels.
    And styrofoam. Lordy, let's do something about styrofoam. Down here, it's the go-to material for all the little food stalls and comedores, and you can't walk anywhere without seeing styrofoam clam shells piling up against a fence where the wind blew them or clogging up some little waterway. Please, somebody, invent a cheap insulating material that deteriorates quickly and harmlessly, and save this planet a lot of misery. 

Friday, January 16, 2015

It takes all kinds to make a world

   An acquaintance made a comment recently to me about what it was like for me living in "the Third World." I've struggled for years to understand that term as something other than a euphemism for dirt poor and uncivilized, but it definitely isn't a phrase I'd use to describe Central America whatever the interpretation.
    Apparently the term was first used in the 1950s by people who grouped the world into countries that were leading the drive toward capitalism, those who believed in communism, and the "third world" that had not yet aligned with either side. But for most of my lifetime, it's merely been a way of summoning the image of a country with crushing poverty and little hope for a better day unless people from the other two worlds show up to save the day.
    Which is basically a load of hooey in the case of Central America.
    The countries in this little neck of land between north and south have definitely been shaped over the centuries by the demands and dreams of the First and Second worlds, mostly because Central America had something that a more powerful nation wanted (materials to mine, land for bananas, people to recruit to the cause, a willingness to consider vast canal projects that would serve the interests of wealthier countries).
     But the people here - the life here - do not much resemble the image that "Third World" brings to mind. I think it does quite a disservice to creative, resourceful and resilient countries to think of them that way.
    The modern world loves to measure countries like Nicaragua, and plot their statistics on scales like the Human Development Index to demonstrate just how far they have to go to "catch up" with countries that are deeply committed to the pursuit of wealth and thus perceived as doing everything right.
     I'm sure we have the best of intentions when we use such tools to measure this thing we call progress (although a cynic might note that the pursuit of international development is also a good way to leverage money and jobs in wealthy countries). A family in Nicaragua is just as eager as a family in Canada to prevent their mother, wife or sister from dying unnecessarily in childbirth for lack of good medical care, for instance, or to have their children end up disadvantaged, disabled or dead due to preventable diseases or poor nutrition.
     But at the same time, the way we measure "progress" for the purposes of development is very specifically about a certain understanding of that term based on the way rich countries see it. The measurements are virtually always connected to things that a dollar value can be attached to. They are often missing the analysis and context that would help the rest of us understand why a country isn't seeing more economic growth. They set the terms for how failure and success will be understood, and never mind that a particular culture might have a completely different interpretation of what counts as success.
     Nor are we very often transparent in our drive toward "development," hiding behind the needs of the poor to serve our own interests.
     When giant corporations come to countries like Nicaragua and Honduras to set up their factories, for instance, their real commitment is not to creating jobs in poor countries, it's to serving the constant demands of consumers in wealthy countries for cheaper and cheaper goods. The working conditions at many of these maquilas trouble me deeply as a Canadian, and the tax-free status that companies demand as a condition to setting up in poorer countries is loathsome.
    But don't go blaming the Capitalist Bastards. Those factories exist because consumers in wealthy nations like mine want cheap stuff without having to sacrifice their own wage levels or tax systems. Should anyone set out to improve working conditions or impose taxation on the international companies, the corporations will simply pack up their bags and find a more willing country. And they will always find one.
    On a purely superficial note, here's what I see around me every day here in Nicaragua: Modern cars driving on modern roads. Electricity, internet and good running water. Brie and baguettes in the supermarkets, and a whole lot of Nicaraguans loading up their shopping carts with such things. Comfortable houses built to make the most of a beautiful climate. Safe city streets full of people who make eye contact as you pass by and are happy to say hello or stop what they're doing if it looks like you feel like talking.
     I see people who are pretty damn healthy given that a lot of them can't afford better-quality private care and have to line up for public care. (I sometimes wonder if that's because the drive to stay alive at any cost that exists in countries like mine simply can't exist in a country like this one, and so the ones who have survived have stronger genetics.)
     In the countryside, I see farming families living on an astoundingly small amount of money in scratchy little houses, yes, but they're producing their own food. They're active citizens who are working hard to hold their governments accountable, and they've been doing that since long before the development agencies started coming down to show them how it's done.
     And the resilience - well, I am endlessly amazed by the resilience. One of the greatest conceits I've encountered since working in Central America was a European development organization's call for proposals to help people here develop resilience. Oh, please. These people wrote the book on resilience.
   One of my biggest learnings so far in this new life has been that just because a country doesn't look like ours doesn't mean it's a failure. I fear we disempower perfectly good cultures with our need to compare them to us and find fault, as if there's only one version of a world. I celebrate diversity.
I'm on assignment with Cuso International. Please visit my fundraising page and support a great Canadian organization doing good work through volunteerism in 17 countries around the world. 

Monday, January 05, 2015

The cost of development

Wealthy nations depend on poor countries to produce
cheap goods, in factories that enjoy tax-free status
in the countries where they operate.
     What actually works to "develop" a country? I think about that a lot in this work in Central America, but the answers remain elusive.
     Let's start with the most obvious issue: Who defines "development"? Do the people who live in poor countries understand what we mean by it, and that the price to be paid for it is essentially a total overhaul of their culture?
     At its essence, development is about an improved economy, both for the country and individual families. More buying power. Better health so you can stay active in the workforce longer. Improved conditions for women and other vulnerable populations. A bigger and better GDP.
     But sometimes I wonder if the drive to make that happen in poor countries is more about those of us from rich nations presuming that every culture not only wants the same things we want, but is prepared and able to change all the things about their own culture that get in the way.
     One of the issues faced by the organization I'm working with here in Nicaragua is a lack of commitment among its 2,000 members - who are women farmers - to grow crops large enough to both feed their families and sell at the markets. For true economic development, these farmers need to end up with money in their pockets that they can now spend on consumer goods, invest, or use to create new jobs.
     Nicaragua believes in farming cooperatives as a way out of poverty, especially for women. And all things being equal, I'm sure they would be. Women's economic power is critical to development. We may talk a good game about valuing the unpaid aspects of life as a woman - reproduction, child-rearing, housekeeping and so on - but the simplest way to improve a country's economy is to get both men and women into the paid workforce.
    But while it's all well and good to strive to empower a woman to see herself as the farmer and not just the wife or daughter of one, the fact is that Nicaragua is still very much a country where women carry a vastly disproportionate burden of household and family duties. That's not only a standard cultural practice, it's a necessity - if not for women, then for someone else in the family.
     There are no day care centres. No money for a paid housekeeper to make those 50 tortillas for your family every day. No government support for children with disabilities or aging parents unable to look after themselves. No old-age homes to tuck the ancianos into while you head off to sell your produce in the market, and a cultural reluctance to do that to a family member anyway.
     As was the case in Canada and the United States back in the 1940s and 50s, those very real barriers have to be dealt with before women can move easily into the paid economy. The women farmers who I meet through my work are already getting up long before dawn to get their housework done and their kids organized just so they can devote time to their farms. They don't have any more time in the day - let alone transport - to take their goods to market.
    To make development work for them, then, you need as much work going on at the level of government as you do on the ground. The many international organizations that work on development are clearly a critical part of the success of a country like Nicaragua, but there are no projects that will ever be enough on their own to break down systemic barriers to economic improvement.
     For that, you need a system of taxation. A responsible and accountable government. A long-term national plan. A government commitment to better education, because no economy moves forward on a mediocre Grade 6 education and significant functional illiteracy. Jobs that pay, unlike the $160 a month that Nicaraguans are earning to work six days a week in some internationally owned maquila. 
     (And for that matter, factories that pay taxes in the countries where they operate, rather than the maquila system that gives them a free ride in tax-free zones so they can make goods even cheaper for buyers in wealthy nations like mine.)
     Even then, a country also has to recognize what will be lost by taking a more aggressive step into western-style capitalism. One day over lunch hour, I listened as two of my co-workers talked about how hard it was to care for their aging mothers and get to work on time. But they were horrified to think that in other cultures like mine, old people were shuffled off into care homes because nobody in their own families had the time to care for them.
     To embrace the level of capitalism that has made Canada and the U.S. economic powerhouses, my co-workers would have to give up their two-hour lunch breaks during which they go home and prepare food for their families. In all likelihood they would also have to give up a flexible workplace that at the moment understands that sometimes, people are going to have to arrive at work late, leave early, or miss a day entirely to look after their old moms or their sick kids.
     Before Nicaraguan women can enter the paid workforce and become a society more like ours, their aging parents will simply have to be placed into someone else's care. Their children will have to go to day care, which means the wage level will have to be high enough to cover those costs and the family will have to be prepared to give up the cultural principle that a family takes care of its own. Their traditional foods will either have to be bought from third parties or let go of, because a person simply can't make several dozen tortillas a day from scratch for her family's consumption and also participate in the paid workforce.
      There's a price to pay for enhanced economic performance.
     I have no doubt that poor Nicaraguans would love all the trappings of a middle-class life, at least until they find out how completely disruptive that life is to family connections and household routines. But the longer I watch the world trying to bring on development with strings of one-off projects while disengaged governments sit idly by - the more I come to understand the "laid back" work styles in these countries as being about the necessity of taking care of everything back home that no one else is taking care of - the less certain I become that we can get there from here.
I'm on assignment with Cuso International. Please visit my fundraising page and support a great Canadian organization doing good work through volunteerism in 17 countries around the world.