Monday, March 12, 2012

This place needs help - but how?

This family relies on pre-schoolers to flog corn-husk dolls to tourists
How do you help a country that has so many problems?
Big, big question. I suspect I'll spend much of my two years here trying to figure that one out. My particular project with the Comision de Accion Social Menonita will probably click along quite nicely, but you can't live in a place with so much poverty and trouble without wishing you could do a whole lot more than that. (Today's headline: Half of the 90 murders a month in San Pedro Sula are committed by kids under 18.)
When I first arrived, I was very enthusiastic about figuring out ways to connect people I know in Canada with Honduran kids who could be sponsored to attend private schools. The public school system is atrocious - giant classes, no supplies, and militant teachers who walk off the job so much (for good reason - some of them haven't been paid in months) that students typically get just 50 days of school in a year. For maybe $100 or $150 a month, it's possible to buy a Honduran youngster a seat in a much better school.
But I'm daunted by the prospect of trying to pick which youngsters would get such a favour, when there's actually millions of them who need the help.
Then there's the added complication of a school system that for most children ends at Grade 6 no matter what, not to mention the pressures that impoverished families put on their kids to quit school and get a job. And as somebody at Cuso International pointed out when I asked about taking on personal projects, what happens to the families when a volunteer inevitably returns home?
In the short term, I'm thinking that the better thing to do might be to focus on a one-off project that helps as many people as possible. For instance, while we were out in the mountain-top pueblo of La Cumbre this weekend helping a group of Texans from First Christian Church dig a new water reservoir for the villagers, I learned that residents actually have a water-treatment plant - a rare thing - but lack the resources to buy the big plastic bottles so that every household can access the treated water.
So for the lack of $5 per household, they don't have clean water. The pueblo is about 70 bottles short - $350 all in. I mean, that's what we'd call a "no-brainer" in Canada. I can make that happen.
My boss tells me there are all kinds of little water projects in the various pueblos that could be done for a few hundred dollars. Access to water is the bane of these villagers' existence - not only do they live largely without vehicles many kilometres away from commercial centres that sell bottled water, they can't afford to buy it anyway.
So maybe I can play a role in matching up a few bucks from my friends and family in Canada with small water projects that will benefit countless Honduran families for years to come. I'd consider that a good use of my time here.
Ultimately, what Honduras could really use is vast international support and pressure on its government from all the "developed" countries and private interests that do business here.
Canada and the U.S. are major trading partners with Honduras. Mining companies from my homeland have shown much enthusiasm for Honduran minerals. If you're taking from a country, don't you have a responsibility to give back?
On paper, Honduras looks like a democratic republic with all kinds of processes, programs and laws in place for the benefit of its citizens. It's a signatory on all the right international agreements guaranteeing equality and happy days for all.
But that's on paper. The reality isn't even close. Why even have all these global conventions and declarations around human rights, universal education, the rights of children and all the other grand-sounding pipe dreams when the international community clearly takes zero responsibility for holding signatories accountable?
I used to find it appalling that the United States was one of the few democracies in the world that refused to sign the Convention on the Rights of the Child, but now I'm  starting to appreciate the honesty. The kids aren't all right in Honduras, Canada, or probably most of the countries that have inked that agreement.
But for now, I guess we'll take things one water bottle at a time.

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