Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Passing the hat for basic needs

Hang around Honduras for more than a few days and you're bound to see some group or another staging what I've come to think of as a water-bottle campaign.
The fundraising drives are essentially a stepped-up version of passing the hat, using empty 20-litre water bottles - like the kind on the office water cooler - for collecting the money. The campaigns are similar to the Christmas drives that organizations like the Salvation Army put on back home; it's common here to see the bottles set out in public places or clutched in the hands of smiling young people soliciting at the side of the road.
But what distinguishes a Honduran maraton are the causes that people are raising money for. In a country with no apparent strategy or funding source for essential public services, passing the hat is really all you've got.
For instance, worried families and staff from the main public hospital in San Pedro Sula held a maraton last week to raise money for basic surgical supplies. Happily, the drive raised a million lempiras - about $50,000 - and surgeons at Mario Rivas hospital are briefly back in business.
Families at the big public hospital in Santa Rosa, Copan, organized a similar fundraiser a couple of months ago after word got out that newborns were being kept in cardboard boxes for lack of proper beds. No doubt plans are also underway for a maraton on behalf of the public hospital in La Ceiba, which was recently served with an eviction notice due to unpaid rent and electrical bills.
Schools use maratones all the time. The campaigns fund the absolute basics: Desks; a new classroom; decent bathrooms; books and school supplies. And while the government does take responsibility for teachers' salaries, the reality is that they're so bad about paying that teachers are always going on strike. (As are doctors and nurses.) If there hasn't already been a maraton to fund a teacher's salary, I'm sure there soon will be.
This past weekend, people were out in the streets of Copan Ruinas holding a maraton for a young man who was kidnapped last week. The kidnappers are demanding an amount that's way beyond anything the young man's family could hope to pay, so they've been reduced to wandering around town with empty water bottles hoping strangers might throw in a few lempiras for their missing son.
Perhaps the nuttiest thing is that Hondurans don't find any of this odd. It's just the way it is. In theory, they've got a democratic government and a lot of laws and policies around caring for vulnerable citizens and ending inequality, but the truth is that people are almost completely on their own.
Maybe that's not such a bad way to live if you're rich; after all, Honduras has all the bells and whistles of a developed country for those who have the money to access them. You don't notice the rich worrying too much about whether Mario Rivas hospital has surgical supplies, because they're buying their medical care  at the bright and shiny private hospital down the road.
But it's a pretty raw deal for the almost 70 per cent of the population that lives in poverty. They've got the worst of both worlds: a government that taxes them but at the same time feels little responsibility to provide basic services.
Governments are good or bad for all kinds of reasons. One that is largely absent leaves its own cruel mark on a country, and a long line of empty water bottles waiting to be filled.

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