Thursday, January 27, 2011

Thoughts on Development

This is sort of set up in 'blurb' kind of format. All I've really done is spewed my thoughts onto the page, so I apologize in advance. It includes some of the things I've learned so far regarding La Mariposa's purpose and the challenges in development I've observed thus far in Nicaragua.

Here's a little story to start things off. Damas diplomaticas, the wives of wealthy diplomats in Managua, the country's capital decided they wanted to put some money into creating latrines for a small school in a very poor neighborhood called Panama, in the same region where I currently live. Unfortunately damas diplomaticas had toilets built but did not think to have the water system checked first to ensure the toilets would be able to function. So now, there are four or five stalls sitting on top of dusty hill, beside the school, rendered completely useless. Fortunately two latrines were built afterwards. I've quickly discovered why the building of latrines is such a successful development project. They don't use any water; they are perfectly sanitary and built out of cement, a very durable and sustainable material. Finally, the soil under which the latrines are built here consists of volcanic soil which helps to decompose waste much quicker than regular soil. First, finding money does not seem to be the problem. Money will always be in abundance, but it is not always directed towards the appropriate needs of the community.

When people become desperate they do crazy things. After the latrines were built and the stalls given wooden doors, all of a sudden the community discovered they had no firewood. Guess where the bottom half of the stall door went? Paulette later suggested that they cut the top half of the door and not the bottom, so at least the children would be given a relative amount of privacy.

The age old issue of who 'deserves' aid more-- how does one go about it? I think the problem lies in the word 'deserve.' I think it's about using an appropriate strategy. Rather than analyzing a community's needs, Paulette looks at what they already have and builds on it. For instance, one day when she was at the school in Panama she looked down a steep ravine and in the field she saw two oxen. She knew that the community was struggling to access water. The closest well is located at least 40 minutes away and as we drove into the community I saw women walking, barefoot, with a giant bucket of water on their heads. And guess what? They were still smiling after a trek in 29 degree weather. So as a simple solution, Paulette suggested they create a system where the oxen could be rigged to a cart and carry the water into the village. Paulette's view: aid is given randomly. World Vision "child sponsorship" program, for example, is exclusive. They take out the sponsored children from the classroom, feed them a meal and leave the rest to starve.

Is it better for the Mariposa to remain a sustainable employment project, than to depend on a registered NGO that depends on a donor? NGOs are intrinsically political; they must follow strict donor policies and requirements and cannot simply take out of their own pocket to give to those in need. Yet they provide a simpler and more organized system. Technically as the hotel has two functions, to provide to guests and to serve a community, when one area becomes overloaded, the other suffers. That's where an NGO would come in to pick up the slack.

One of the questions discussed in all development courses is the question of 'who holds the power' and the notion of participatory development, an inclusionary practice that encourages the community you work with to participate in their own projects. We are trained to understand the view of the 'other' and how we, as development students need to be aware of the power dynamic between us and the local people we interact with every day. Paulette says that the power will always be in her hands, as she is white, the boss, has money, and apparently, according to Nicaraguans, is perceived to know everything…which of course she does not. This is the structure we must work in; it is the reality of the day. Not to say, however, that it cannot change or be challenged. With this in mind, fairness, justice and equality are all aspects one must keep in mind. You may not realize it, but you live an extremely privileged life and you hold a lot of power just because of the color of your skin and where you live. This power is something I've learned to accept as a reality; as is so famously said by Peter Parker's grandfather, "With great power, comes great responsibility." So my request to you today is to take some time to reflect on the power you have and how you can use it to promote justice and equality for those who deserve it the most.

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