Monday, April 23, 2012

Be careful what you wish for

You need lots of razor wire in a country without governance

We were commiserating over breakfast yesterday with the owner of the little hotel in Tegucigalpa where we stay when on Cuso International business. He described Honduras as a capitalist country without the balance of a social structure, which struck me as a near-perfect description of the place.
Honduras is the real-life embodiment of the kind of governance that conservative political forces in Canada, the U.S. and Great Britain think they want for their own countries. It has a free-market economy with very little government interference, a political structure built around the needs of business and the upper-class, and a distinct absence of social supports.
Having lived under governments that could only dream about such things, I'm finding the real deal here in Honduras particularly enlightening. Here you really are free -  free to be as rich as you can possibly be with no worries that anyone will expect you to share even a little of your wealth with the less fortunate, equally free to pass your days in abject poverty with no hope of relief. 
Of course, Western governments shape the dream a little differently when they're trying to sell it to their citizens. British Prime Minister David Cameron came up with that whole "Big Society" business to dress up his government’s massive cuts to social spending.
The theory behind a Big Society – popular with the B.C. and Canadian governments as well – is that when governments withdraw social supports, communities step up to close the gap. Volunteerism increases. Citizens draw closer to their neighbours as each takes more responsibility for helping the other. Everybody lives happily ever after, and pays fewer taxes to boot.
So let’s consider the example of Honduras, then. It’s a Big Society if ever there was one, seeing as government does almost nothing and communities really are on their own. An outsider might presume a deeply ingrained culture of neighbourly support in a country like this.
But what the absence of social supports has actually created is a culture of survival. People are so used to living with the fear that the bottom could drop out of their lives at any moment -  because it so often does – that all their energies go to taking care of their own. From what I've seen, Honduran families watch out for their family members in all kinds of ways, but anything outside of the family is somebody else’s problem.
A story in Sunday’s La Tribuna made this point quite nicely. The rather tragic public school system is on the verge of collapse in Honduras for all kinds of reasons, but this story focused on youngsters at one particular school who have to sit on the floor for their six hours of class because they have no chairs.
It turns out that there are chairs at the school; the parents of the students who come in the morning (schools have two shifts of students a day) fundraised to buy them. But the chairs are locked up after the morning session. A parent spokesman for the morning group said that if the afternoon students wanted chairs, then it was up to their parents to do their own fundraising.
Ah, now there’s community spirit for you. And you can’t even blame the morning parents for having that attitude, because in a culture of scarcity they’re probably right to fear what might happen to those chairs if they start sharing them around.
But it gives the lie to the myth that conservative governments like to feed us, about how we’ll all get more caring and sharing once we’re not so reliant on government.
Another example: Garbage on the streets. Individual Hondurans appear to be tidy people at home, sweeping up their front stoops every day and picking up whatever trash careless passersby have thrown in front of their houses. But as soon as you get to an empty lot or a vacant house, the garbage accumulates at an alarming rate.
People take responsibility for their own tiny piece of the environment. But nobody takes responsibility for the whole. There are no community clean-up crews, nobody doing anything about the de facto dumps that develop along river banks or on quiet back roads.
The rivers and lakes are polluted, because whose job is it to do something about that? The trees fall in the forest – in the last 15 years, Honduras has lost 45 per cent of its trees to illegal logging and fires – but if it’s not your land, it’s not your problem. I suspect Westerners would be no different if there really was no government resources, no authority, no chain of responsibility.
How bad can it get in the land of the “free”? How’s this: A terrible highway collision (common here, because whose going to take responsibility for road improvements if not government?) takes the lives of eight people. Before the ambulances can even retrieve the bodies, passersby have stripped the dead of their wallets, jewelry and other valuables.
Heinous behaviour to cultures that haven’t had to experience life as a survivor. Here in the land of the free, it’s just another day.


Anonymous said...

Thx for this insightful summary of life in "free" places.

I'm a believer that we need to be a community and, yes, take care of those we meet, who are less fortunate.

Right wing governments don't see it that way & I am sorry about that. I will keep doing my little bit. Thanks for your writings, Jody.

fhb said...

Hi Jody.
I've been vicariously following along with you and Paul for a while and recently friended you on Facebook.

This is a great piece on a subject I'm very interested in.

I've been watching the evolution of "voluntary labour" for a while now and it's fascinating to see the narrative that develops around it. Of course, getting to say why people do what they do is often the privilege of the directors rather than the directed. I suspect that journalists are often obliged to seek out those "volunteers" who tow that line as well, so it's not unusual from what I've seen to have an intern parrot the wonderfulness of working for free, "just to get a foot in the door". The book Intern Nation describes how that's been playing out.
What intrigues me most however, is how those who run the show co-opt motivation. It's not enough to get work done for free - you have to have a story about why that can happen that sounds nice too! "Nice" here refers to a story that implies all actors are rational, have perfect information, are self-maximizing and are purely utilitarian - as opposed to young, indebted, starving and desperate. No exploitation here! So you make every act, no matter how selfless or intrinsic - in that it was done for its own sake - into a purely extrinsic one. You owe it to others. It's less difficult than it might sound.

You can even trace the evolution on-line. From Wikipedia (you do it for love!) to Huffington Post (you do it to market your brand!) to Big Society (you do it because you owe it to society!) Even Mechanical Turk, which is the high-tech version of industrial age piece-work and typically pays pennies per task performed contributes to the mantra of ever-less valuable labour.

There is a truly fascinating discourse taking place on the monetary versus social value of labour that deserves *much* greater scrutiny. The encroachment of "valueless work" and the claims on what its motivation should be or is offers a pretty nasty glimpse of where society is heading.
I have a seriously dark sense of humour and when it kicks in on this subject, the denouement of this line of "progress" ends with a gate with the words "Work will set you free" written above it.
Evil creeps in - it doesn't knock.

Hope this didn't come off too much like a rant, but I was so happy so see one of my favourite local journalists turn their eye to Cameron's Big Society and look at its implications that I couldn't help myself!

Dave Killion said...

"This particular hotel owner appears to be a poor source of high-quality economic analysis. According to the 2012 edition of the “Index of Economic Freedom“, Honduras is ranked 98th in the world. In case you are wondering, this is not good. Not only is the Honduran economy labeled Mostly Unfree, but it is also below both the world AND regional averages for economic freedom."

Dave Killion said...

"Because Jody thinks Honduras has a free market, she thinks that what she sees is the Big Society you get with a free market. But being wrong about the former means she is wrong about the latter."

Anonymous said...

It's the funniest thing in the world to read some libertarian numbskull rail against "special interests", without the slightest recognition that wealth earned via the labours of others has some very special interests of its own.

Tara said...

Great post Jody, not enough dialogue in Canadian public about this. Thanks and I will look into it more because you wrote this.