Thursday, May 16, 2013

What's it going to take to set things right?

The latest stats are in around poverty in Honduras, and as profoundly discouraging as ever. Almost two million people - a quarter of the population - are living on the equivalent of a buck a day, and another 2.5 million aren't doing much better. Another 1.6 million are living in relative poverty
Contrast that against the amount of aid that has poured into the country in the last decade, and you can't help but wonder what it all means. The U.S. alone has spent $836 million in grants and aid to Honduras since 2003, and hundreds of European and Asian organizations and governments have sent major money into the country as well.
And yet here the country sits, dirt poor and falling in the international rankings even while other Latin American countries are on the way up. The situation is even more desperate in the rural areas, where as many as eight in 10 people are living in poverty.
 We can't expect aid dollars to work miracles, of course. But the stats are certainly suggesting that it might be time to refocus those strategies. And if there's anyone left who believes that "trickle down economics" work to alleviate poverty, I'd say Honduras provides a rather stunning example to the contrary.
My own opinion of international aid has grown more uncertain with each passing day in a developing country. (If you can even call a country "developing" when it's so obviously stalled out.) I suppose things would be a whole lot worse in Honduras without it, but how is it that all that money and goodwill hasn't amounted to more meaningful change?
I like the comments of Honduran economist Carlos Urbizo, quoted in the La Prensa story this week. "The fight is not against poverty," said Urbizo. "It's against a political and economic system that generates poverty. The existing undemocratic system, the capitalist system we does not allow this situation to improve."
Not that there's anything wrong with capitalism as a tool for eradicating poverty. There's no way out without money. But in this global world, unbridled capitalism in a country with as weak a government structure as Honduras is really just a route to great wealth for those who already have it and stagnation for everybody else.
Global capitalism has, for instance, brought maquilas to Honduras. There's a good chance you have clothes in your closet right now that were made in one of the big factories here, which employ more than 120,000 people and generate a third of Honduras's GDP. The wheels of the developed world turn on the goods and services produced in poor countries.
But while the maquila jobs pay better than a lot of jobs in the country, the pay isn't enough to lift families into a permanently better standard of living. (Minimum wage for a maquila worker is about $240 a month).
It isn't enough to cover the considerable costs of life in a country without decent public health care or education. It isn't enough to offer any hope for children in the family to get the kind of education and opportunity that might lift them up in turn. At best, it keeps somebody's head above water.
And that's just the maquila jobs. I wondered why the woman who cleans my house seemed so attached to us, then discovered that she has to work almost three full days at another job to match the $8 we pay her for an hour or two of cleaning once a week. Wages are brutally low across the board in Honduras, and way out of balance with the cost of living.
What's to be done? Probably a thousand different things, but three come to my mind immediately: A functioning tax system capable of funding all the basics of a civil society; a government that loves its country and strives every day to do right by it; and a vastly improved education system and international exchanges to ensure Honduran kids stand a chance of being able to compete in a global market.
Those are fundamental changes that Hondurans have to make for themselves. But if more aid dollars focused on helping such cultural shifts happen, maybe we'd start getting somewhere. If foreign governments and companies making money in Honduras actively took an interest in the country and not just in its minerals, palm oil and cheap labour, maybe the children of my underpaid co-workers might actually face a brighter economic future.
Until then, it's just another bowl of soup on the table to stave off the day's hunger. Not much future in that.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It gets overwhelming - truly difficult to see a way out. Is there any kind of movement or opposition in the country that's trying to educat or galvanize the public? Or is everyone too exhausted?