Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Dear world: Send money

This is "home" for one ill, impoverished woman in my community

Every day brings new revelations when you live in a foreign culture. And when it's a developing country, the learning curve is just that much steeper. 
Even calling Honduras a developing country  is something of a misnomer, seeing as the country has actually lost ground in recent years. Perhaps a more apt name is an “unravelling country.” But at any rate, I had a certain expectation of what it was going to feel like to live in such a place, and I was wrong.
Back in my Canada days, I would have presumed all impoverished countries needed stuff. Indeed, stuff is what countries with money most like to send to impoverished countries: Notebooks and pens for youngsters; clothing; medicines; school desks; blankets.
And in times of natural disaster - when access is severely limited or there’s a need for huge quantities of certain things all at once - I’m sure such donations are very useful. But having wandered through some of the giant superstores and high-end malls of San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa, I now understand that in the day-to-day lives of impoverished Hondurans, it isn’t really stuff from developed nations that they're lacking – it’s money to buy the stuff that’s already here.
I imagined that poor countries were places without the capacity to make their own stuff. Wrong. Honduras has lots of capacity, because it’s got a significant population of wealthy, very comfortable citizens who have created a market for all the same things that Canadians are accustomed to having access to. You can go to a department store in one of the major centres of Honduras and find pretty much everything you’d find in any Canadian department store. There's an Ikea-size prescription drug warehouse in San Pedro with every type of medicine you'd need to fix all the sick, suffering people of Honduras. 
So the stuff is here. The problem is that most of the population can't afford it. 
This is a country where some people live like kings and the majority live in abject poverty. I sense there has to be a better way to help that segment of the population that doesn't involve incurring massive shipping costs to send things that are already available right here.
An example: my boss at the Comisión de Acción Social Menonita asked me to look around for help for a school that’s having a heck of a time providing desks and basic materials for its 160 students. So I put out an exploratory email to one of the B.C. groups that specialize in shipping such things to poor countries, only to discover that to get a container’s worth of school furniture to Honduras I'd first have to raise $6,000 to cover the shipping costs. 
That is a phenomenal amount of money in Honduras. The woman in B.C. said the shipping costs pale in comparison to the value of the goods, but I suspect that’s true only if you calculate the costs of such things in Canada. Here in Honduras, $6,000 would go a very long way if used to buy locally made desks, and would create jobs right here in the country for a significant number of carpenters as well.
I get why people like to ship stuff rather than send money. It feels more real. It feels more certain. There was a story in the Honduran papers a while back about a maternity ward that was wrapping newborn babies in paper for wont of sheets, and a few weeks later down came a big load of little baby blankets from the U.S. No worries about someone misusing your donation if you send desks and baby blankets instead of money.
But that’s really about the needs of the donor. If you’re looking at it from the perspective of the receiver, money makes a lot more sense. It wasn’t a chronic shortage of baby blankets in Honduras that led to those newborns being wrapped in paper, it was a lack of money for public hospitals.
Outside my workplace, six giant barrels of notebooks and pens shipped from the United States sit waiting to be distributed to young Hondurans. It must have cost a lot to send them here. I can’t help but wonder how much further those dollars would have stretched if those good-hearted donors had sent a cheque instead and the supplies had come from the well-stocked stationery store down the road from my house.
What this country needs – what every country needs – is a better way of assuring donors that their donations are being used wisely. We need more strategic responses that get beyond a feel-good moment of charitable giving and down to the brass tacks of economic development. I'd also like to see democratic countries that trade with developing countries turning up the heat a little to encourage more civic-mindedness in countries like this one, which appear to take so little responsibility for their citizens' well-being.
Until we figure that out, we’re just nice folks with too much stuff feeling good about sending our surplus somewhere. It’s a kind but inefficient gesture that skirts the bigger problems.  Struggling countries like this one need so much more than that.


Vicki said...

Jody, don't forget that some of that "stuff" is from a corporation that finds it easier to write off "stuff" than it does a donation of cash. Relatively easy to get big business to donate stuff, very difficult to get your hands on their cash.

Cairine Green said...

Jody, it's Cairine Green here. Kim alerted me to your blog site and what a great chronicle of your experiences there. Glad you are still writing about the big issues this world keeps throwing at us. Hoping all is going well for you both and you deserve a lot of credit for getting down in the trenches and actually practicing what so many of us preach about. Take care and you are so right on so many levels.

Kim Knull said...

Thank you for that!